Changes on tap for University of Northern Iowa search

Some wary of ambitious timeline

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The University of Iowa at this time last year was welcoming finalists to campus for its presidential vacancy, and the Iowa Board of Regents on Monday found itself again absorbed in a presidential search — this time at the University of Northern Iowa.

The UNI search will feature some changes after the UI search resulted in widespread distrust in the board and its process for hiring UI President Bruce Harreld. For starters, the 21-member UNI search committee will not be dismissed after identifying finalists — in contrast to what was done with the UI search committee.

“This is something that is very different — it’s an add-on to the search,” regents President Pro Tem Katie Mulholland told the UNI search committee during its first full meeting Monday. “We want the committee to be able to come to a closed session of the Board of (Regents) to talk about the strengths in the finalists. To talk about the candidates and what you see.”

That meeting, according to a proposed timeline, will occur Dec. 5. Search committee members first will meet in the morning to organize their collective thoughts and feedback from their constituents, and then committee representatives will present their feedback to the board during a 90-minute afternoon meeting.

The Board of Regents on Dec. 6 will interview the finalists and meet in closed session to make a final decision. The search committee — or at least some members — then will be tapped to help transition the new president to campus.

One committee member expressed concern, however, that the proposed schedule doesn’t allot enough time for the group to weigh constituent feedback and formulate a report incorporating committee member thoughts.

The quick turnaround between finalists’ campus visits and the board’s final hiring decision was among the many criticisms of the UI search.

Mulholland and a consultant with AGB Search — the firm hired to facilitate the process — said on Monday they can be flexible with UNI, but Mulholland warned about taking too much time between publicly disclosing finalists’ names and making a decision.

The current timetable sets up about six days between the first candidate visit and the board’s selection, and Mulholland said stretching that to more than seven days would be problematic.

“We may lose candidates with that timing,” she said. “That’s a concern.”

Committee co-chair and UNI professor Daniel Power said candidates “don’t like to have their name hanging out there too long.” They want quick closure, he said.

“We don’t want someone to withdraw or not even agree to apply because they don’t want that long of exposure,” he said. “It’s standard practice to keep it as short as possible between the campus visit and the final decision.”

He said hiring a new president in early December also makes the most sense academically — as it avoids finals week and the winter break. Power himself is headed to Hong Kong on Dec. 7 to teach with the university’s masters of business program.

“I think the fifth is the best we can do,” he said.

Joe Gorton, UNI associate professor and president of UNI’s United Faculty union, said if the board wants to stick to an early December hiring date, he’d like to see candidates visit campus earlier.

“I really don’t think that’s a feasible schedule,” he said. “It will not allow the committee enough time to create a coherent report and won’t allow enough time with the faculty to discuss our views about all the candidates.”

The Board of Regents is expected to approve the search committee and its timeline at its meeting on the UI campus next week, and Gorton said he hopes regents revisit the schedule.

“I really appreciate that everyone has constraints on their schedules,” he said. “But the outcome of this search is critically important to the future of this university.”

The UNI search also differs from the UI search in that it is tapping AGB Search to facilitate the process instead of Parker Executive Search — which it used for its last three presidential hunts. Consultants Jim McCormick and Janice Fitzgerald are working the UNI search for AGB, which also employs former UI President Sally Mason as a consultant.

According to AGB’s website, Mason joined the firm in 2015 after leaving her post at UI.

During Monday’s launch of the UNI search, Power said the committee will branch into five smaller working groups charged with preparing an advertisement, managing the website and the recruiting and rating process, organizing accommodations for off-site semifinalist interviews, preparing for on-campus visits and sorting through reference checks and the process for completing those.

Mulholland and other members of the board recently conducted listening sessions across campus in hopes of gauging public sentiment around what they’d like too see in a new president. She shared some of those thoughts Monday — they included the canidate having a “strong academic background” and commitment to diversity, academic freedom and shared governance, academic excellence, and innovation.

She listed several qualifications as “strongly preferred,” including a terminal degree, capital campaign fundraising experience, and commitment to athletics. But the strongly-preferred label prompted questions about whether some qualifications should be required.

The UI presidential advertisement did not list any requirements — and the board hired Harreld, who did not have some of the “strongly preferred” qualities. One UNI search committee member on Monday asked why not make some candidate qualifications mandatory.

Muholland said as soon as you do that, you start meshing with candidates that “don’t meet the checks on required.”

“Then that becomes a PR issue and it addresses not being open and transparent,” she said.

Gorton, however, said he “absolutely” thinks some candidate qualifications should be mandatory.

“One of those should be that a successful candidate should be able to be tenured in an academic department in this university,” he said.

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