UNC hires search firm to find president

The UNC Board of Governors’ search committee has chosen a Boston-based consultant to help find the next UNC system president.

The panel picked the Isaacson, Miller firm in a unanimous vote Friday after interviewing its chairman, John Isaacson, on Thursday.

He has conducted higher education searches for both public and private universities. His 160-employee firm recently led searches for the provost and medical center chancellor at Duke University. Isaacson also helped place former UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp at Washington University in St. Louis, where he is provost.

In the past five years, he identified new leaders for five University of California campuses, as well as the UC system, which two years ago hired Janet Napolitano, former secretary of Homeland Security and former Arizona governor.

The cost of UNC’s search is expected to be nearly $300,000. Isaacson had submitted a proposal to do the search for $150,000 plus $20,000 in expenses, but the exact fee has yet to be negotiated. The search committee estimated that its additional expenses would be $114,000, according to an initial budget approved Friday.

The consultant will begin to look for candidates to lead a system of 17 public campuses that educate more than 220,000 students in North Carolina. This week, faculty, staff, students, alumni and taxpayers attended statewide public forums to give input on the search. The last forum will be held Monday at UNC Charlotte.

Isaacson told the committee that the Board of Governors would have to clarify for candidates why it moved to push out the current president in a controversial move in January. Tom Ross will leave the job early next year.

“They’re going to have to understand why Tom Ross disappeared,” Isaacson said, “and why you need somebody new.”

The UNC system is one of the great public universities in the United States, he said, and should naturally draw good candidates.

“That’s not enough,” he cautioned. “You’ve got to then say, ‘And what’s the president going to do that’s meaningful, that the world thinks is important and that a person who has real ability is going to dedicate the rest of his life to?’”

He said the search won’t be easy, partly because of UNC’s current situation and partly because there are few people equipped for public system presidencies.

“I don’t think it will be easy. I think people are going to run from this search,” he said. “I think you’re going to have to talk them into it.”

Several committee members have suggested that the university system needs a “change agent” who can navigate the shifting landscape of U.S. higher education, which faces challenges in cost, technology and public accountability.

Isaacson agreed that universities today are grappling with an economic model that’s at risk. “We’re at an inflection point in higher education,” he added.

The UNC system has a long history of civic leaders with a personal devotion to North Carolina and its public higher education system.

“For a very, very long period of time, a lot of very serious people built this thing,” he said, “and it is central to the state’s sense of itself.”

The search committee chairwoman, Joan MacNeill, said Isaacson was the top choice.

“We were impressed with the background, the experience, the thoughtfulness and the candor,” she said. “He spoke to us very candidly. We felt like there was a very good fit.”

The committee interviewed four firms. One consultant, Los Angeles-based Ilene Nagel of Russell Reynolds, dropped out after her interview with the committee last week. In an email, Nagel said she notified the committee this week of the firm’s withdrawal. “Our reasons were multiple and complex, but none having to do with the prestige of the position or the university,” she wrote.

The firm was already committed to several other “marquee” searches, her email said, and “the time commitment might be problematic.”

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Twitter: @janestancill