University of Iowa turnover costs mounting

Three firms helping search for new leaders net $1.4 million so far

David Gier
David Gier

IOWA CITY — Since the start of last year, the University of Iowa has said goodbye to at least 20 top administrators — deans, directors and vice presidents — resulting in steep costs for searches to fill the vacancies.

A review by The Gazette shows the university has tapped search firms to help replace at least nine departed administrators since the start of 2017, many of whom left this year. Contracts for those firms show total fees and expenses are expected to top $1.5 million.

The university has paid three firms a total of about $1.4 million for those nine searches through Aug. 17, according to data reviewed by The Gazette.

Those costs represent a sort of Catch-22: As the university absorbs state funding cuts that have depleted resources helpful in retaining top administrators, it finds itself spending more to replace them.

Since the 2016 budget year, Iowa lawmakers have cut the UI budget by $16 million. Since the start of the 2017 budget year, the Legislature has reduced general education support for the Board of Regents by more than $40 million.

UI President Bruce Harreld, after insisting during the 2018 budget year on committing nearly $5 million toward pay increases to make UI salaries more competitive, recently announced raises in the new budget year will be postponed until January.

Although many of the recently-departed UI administrators were recruited away by other universities, some, nearing the end of their professional careers, retired. Others told The Gazette they didn’t leave because of money.

“I love the University of Iowa and always assumed I would complete my career here,” UI School of Music Director David Gier said last month after news broke of his plans to leave in September to become dean of University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre and Dance.

UI officials said the level of turnover isn’t exactly abnormal.

“The University of Iowa is fortunate to have leaders who chose to serve for many years because of the strength of the institution, collegiality of our faculty and staff, and vibrant community,” UI spokeswoman Jeneane Beck said. “Now we are experiencing a normal cycle of retirements and resignations which allows new leaders to emerge.”

National experts report the use of search firms has become increasingly common in the higher education realm — and now is perceived as the norm in many cases.

Executives atop search firms working with the UI declined to comment. But Lucy A. Leske, senior partner at Witt/Kieffer, which consulted on two recent UI Health Care searches, wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education that searches are inherently costly affairs, even when firms aren’t involved.

“The internal costs of any search are significant, and when the expense of hiring a search firm is added, it is no wonder that people start to question its value,” she wrote.

Search firms, though, can be helpful in guiding universities through the process of advertising and recruiting, ferreting out top prospects and interviewing them — all while keeping a low profile for candidates who don’t want current employers to know.

UI spokeswoman Beck said using a search firm allows the university to extend its reach and produce a wider and more diverse pool of candidates.

“Using a search firm ensures that the process goes smoothly and allows the UI community to focus on selecting the best candidate,” she said.

Still, the UI departures have posed additional challenges in the institution’s efforts to fill openings — as many searches involve committees of faculty and staff members who must spread even thinner their time and resources.

In the university’s search for a new vice president for research, it recently had to replace that committee’s co-chair — who was Gier — after he announced his alma mater Michigan had courted him away.

Another member of that committee — Tonya Peeples, engineering professor and associate dean for diversity and outreach in the UI College of Engineering — also left the university in July, mid-search, for a new job at Penn State University.

Lena Hill, just 10 months after being tapped as interim chief diversity officer and associate vice president following Georgina Dodge’s departure, announced in April she’d be leaving in May to become dean of the College at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va.

That prompted UI leadership to ask Vice President for Student Life Melissa Shivers, who had been on the job less than a year, to take on chief diversity officer duties as well until that job is filled.

UI President Harreld only last month named committee co-chairs for the chief diversity officer search, which will involve consultant Isaacson Miller at an estimated fee of $66,000, along with expenses topping $7,000.

UI officials said departments don’t track ancillary costs associated with faculty and staff time spent on searches — as many simply absorb search committee work into their regular duties.

Of the three search firms the UI has chosen for its recent administrative vacancies, Isaacson Miller has landed the most contracts: six, totaling anticipated fees and associated expenses upward of $908,000. Witt/Kieffer received two contracts involving UI Health Care administrative departures totaling more than $429,000, and Korn Ferry International landed a contract paying more than $143,200 to find a chief nursing officer. That search stretched for nearly two years and involved four contract amendments — adding at least $10,000 to the hunt, not including additional expenses.

In February, the university announced it had chosen internal candidate Cindy Dawson as chief nursing executive. She had been serving as interim chief nursing officer since July 2016.

“Dawson’s appointment comes after an extensive national search and is a reflection of the search committee’s confidence that Dawson’s nursing expertise, along with the leadership she has demonstrated in the past year and a half, make her the right leader for the Department of Nursing Services and Patient Care,” according to a UIHC news bulletin.

The university in June also had to extend its search for a new associate vice president and dean of students after bringing to campus between April 25 and May 3 four finalists to replace departed Lyn Redington.

Despite publicly introducing those candidates as top prospects for the job, the university chose not to hire any of them and instead decided to keep looking.

Before the search extension, UI officials had opted not to use a consultant. It hired Isaacson Miller in June to help oversee the continuation.

The recent search that cost the university the most — in terms of its payments to a consultant — was the process of finding a new vice president for medical affairs atop UI Health Care, replacing Jean Robillard.

That contract, which went to Isaacson Miller, paid $367,743.

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