by James Thalman
To have even a prayer of fulfilling the aspirations of the university's numerous vested interests, the new president "will pretty much have to be deity," U Humanities Center Director Lowell Durham says, only half joking, after a recent presidential search committee meeting. "The way we're talking, you'd think we're darn near ready to make omniscience part of the job description."
"All-knowing" didn't make the list of criteria the university's 13th president will have to meet, but the task is certainly daunting, says Cecelia Foxley BS65 PhD68, Utah's commissioner of higher education and a member of the search committee. No one is looking for a superhuman, she adds. "We're basically looking for someone with the sensitivity to appreciate what we have here and the passion to lead the U into the 21st century."
Some of the necessary characteristics being voiced across campus include: bright, capable, accessible, focused, intense, understanding of Utah's culture, charismatic, astute with the Legislature, wise, an advocate for students, empathetic toward faculty, a team builder, capable of "selling" the institution, and an outgoing, people person with an interest in being at Utah for the long-term.
"We're really looking for someone who doesn't exist," says Irwin Altman, Distinguished Professor in psychology and a former vice president for academic affairs. "No one is going to be perfect; everybody has weaknesses. But that administrator needs to know what they know and then be smart enough to bring in the next tier of leadership that has strengths to offset the weaknesses."
In January, a Continuum Conversation program examined the qualities the next president should possess. Ken Verdoia, panel moderator and senior producer at KUED, said if the job expectations were boiled down like a classified ad, it would read something like: "Help Wanted. One of Utah's largest employers seeks chief executive officer. Must have proven leadership ability and academic record, but not be ivory-tower insulated. Demonstrated success in public and private fund development a necessity. Must be capable of defending intellectual freedom yet possess demonstrated ability to determine which way the wind is blowing. Daily trials include interfacing successfully with frustrated faculty, long-suffering staff, indignant community and legislative leaders. Compassion for lost freshmen is considered a plus. The appropriate dignitary will be an independent, strong-willed champion of higher education with a proven track record of answering to everyone. The successful candidate should ferociously advocate success in university athletics while simultaneously decrying the influence of sports on higher education."
Indeed, a president gets yanked in all directions. If the job is so hard, would anyone in his or her right mind want it?
In some ways, what motivates someone to seek a presidency has to be questioned, said Jerilyn McIntyre, acting president of the U. (By agreeing to run the U's affairs until a new president is appointed, McIntyre disqualified herself as a presidential candidate.)
"I would be very wary of someone who says they are driven to be a president," McIntyre says. "But there are people who have reached a point in their careers where they're ready for it, both as an opportunity and a new challenge."
That person will have the vision of what can be done to best help a university, and will not necessarily view it as the ultimate achievement in their personal career, she says.
As far as the U is concerned, she adds, the next president will need to have a sense of the possibilities for the U as well as a working plan of how to achieve them.
McIntyre has recent, firsthand experience of being a candidate for a university presidency. She was a finalist for the University of Wyoming job but eventually withdrew from consideration. As a result, Ë she advises the search committee and other university constituents to be certain that candidates are told why the institution is one they would want to lead.
Every campus has peculiar and prickly challenges that a candidate will be made aware of, she says. "But the academic excellence of this campus has to come through in the process, too. That's extremely important for a candidate to hear."
Every candidate, indeed every resident and every government official, should be aware of the vital role the U and higher education play in the state, says Pamela Atkinson, a member of the state Board of Regents and the presidential search committee.
"The lack of understanding is widespread," Atkinson says, adding that through her community service work it has become apparent that legislators are far more knowledgeable about poverty and homeless issues, for example, than they are about higher education.
"We hear constantly about the reconstruction of the I-15 corridor, but no one talks about where the engineers come from who will do that work. I'm afraid the U and the state system (of higher education) are often taken for granted."
Dixie Huefner MS77 JD86, special education professor, says she agrees that satisfying the many masters a university president must serve is probably impossible.
However, she says, in her opinion there are eight qualifications the next president must meet:
- Have a real respect and affection for the faculty as well as an appreciation for their multiple roles as responsible providers of knowledge through teaching, research and community service.
- Have a collegial style in making decisions.
- Support the library and instructional technology. It's critical to understand the vibrancy of the library. "It's no longer just books, it's how we make resources available to enhance learning."
- Articulate the goals of the University to the community.
- Know the difference between managing a public institution and a private business. "We have bottom lines to worry about, but we must meet multiple purposes and public missions that cannot be ignored in trying to achieve financial efficiency."
- Work well with all constituencies.
- Advocate for students, traditional and non-traditional, and be able to advocate inside the institution as well as outside.
- Have or acquire a real commitment to this particular university in this state. "I think we want someone who discovers that we're wonderful and who likes being here,"
Pat Hanna, dean of the U College of Humanities, says while it's fine to raise awareness among legislators and others of engineers and the economic effects the U has on the state, the next president must be able to understand and appreciate the two colleges that account for almost 45 percent of all student credit hours &emdash; Humanities and Social and Behavioral Science.
"If that person can't explain our colleges and the importance of our research, this university will cease to be a flagship and cease to be a university," Hanna predicts.
Anxiety about the future has surfaced often during the initial meetings on and off campus between the search committee and constituency groups. Concerns include how the U will deal with an enrollment shortfall, whether the current organization of the state System of Higher Education devalues the U, and how the campus will cope with helping stage a Winter Olympics in five years. Overriding those specific worries is how the campus will face the erosion of public support for higher education in general.
Altman said concerns will naturally overshadow everyone's outlook at a time like this. There is a lot of anxiety on the campus and across the country regarding the future of higher education, he says, adding that universities everywhere feel undervalued by the community and their state legislatures.
It only makes sense that a university looking for a new president is going to feel particularly anxious. "But what we really need to think about is finding someone who fits the issues and circumstances and community we serve."
According to James Clayton BA58, history professor and former U provost, the role and reporting responsibilities for the University president is a fundamental question that must be resolved at the state level. Clayton, Professor Emeritus and President Emeritus Alfred Emery, and law professor John Flynn wrote a letter to the search committee which said that the kind of president both the committee can find and the faculty can support depends on "what role a new president is both expected and permitted to fill."
Altman says he believes the new president needs to recognize "that it's time for a new social contract with society to be reformulated between higher education and its communities."
Offering a broad-based liberal education is no longer enough. The University must participate in solving the problems of modern communities such as environment, transportation and homelessness and be about educating good citizens, he says. "The next president is going to be the one to build that new bridge."
A president is bound to live a life under crossfire, Robert Garff, a university trustee and a former state senator, said during the panel discussion on presidential qualities. That person must be the sounding board for the trustees, the faculty, administration, the surrounding communities, the Legislature, and the major donors, Garff told the group.
"And each of them have different agendas and want different things out of the institution", he said. "You'd have to describe deity to describe what we all want. We're not going to get that, but one thing the next president must be is presidential.
"There has to be some charismatic leadership style and presence," says Garff, adding that the person must give thousands of people connected with the U the strong and abiding feeling that he or she is bright and capable.
Garff says an apt description of the U can be found in an assessment of higher education and other institutions in the 20th century written by John Gardner, an advisor to John Kennedy: "They are caught in a savage crossfire between uncritical lovers and unloving critics," Gardner wrote. "On one side those who love their institution tend to smother it in the embrace of death, loving their rigidities more than their promise, shielding them from life-giving criticisms. On the other side there is a breed of critics without love, skilled in demolition but untutored in the arts by which human institutions are nurtured and strengthened and made to flourish."
Don Gale BA58 MA60 PhD86, a former trustee and U alumni president, says it would be presumptuous to speak for all alumni because he is only one of 180,000. But he added there are a few qualities in a university president that a majority of former students are likely to favor, including a president who will:
- respect and support the alumni and their organization.
- define and explain the long-term mission of the university to alumni, most of whom are in the business world and are most comfortable if they know exactly what the president thinks is supposed to be accomplished.
- support and appreciate the athletic program, which may seem irrelevant to some faculty members but often provide key contact points for alumni, the community and those vital donors who keep the university operating.
- not have an ivory tower mentality and understands that the university needs the community at least as much as the community needs the university.
- have a strong commitment to undergraduate education and the needs of undergraduate students.
- be a social animal as comfortable in large social settings as in one-on-one situations.
- be an effective spokesperson and a knowledgeable public relations practitioner.
- be in office for the long term. "The university is shortchanged when a president's tenure is short-lived."
Search committee members say a key trait they'll be looking for is someone who wants to be president a long time. The ideal candidate won't have much time to surface under the committee's timetable, which puts a new president in place by summer. Commissioner Foxley says many constituents and several committee members regard the time frame as "overly optimistic" and are saying that the last thing they want to do is appear desperate. "We will take as long as it takes," Foxley says.
An element that might have delayed the process was disagreement over whether the search should be open or closed to the public. Current policy dictates that the names of candidates not be disclosed and that all discussions and interviews with them be confidential throughout the process. The Regents opted to uphold the searchs confidentiality despite challenges from the Utah chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
Several states make presidential searches a matter of public record, and most of those announce the names of three finalists, making the candidates accessible to the news media and other public groups. However, at least one other state, Michigan, which has been public, has recently decided to make searches there closed.
Acting President McIntyre said her experience in an open process in Wyoming changed her opinion that searches should be public. Candidates could face problems with superiors if their interests in another position were disclosed early in the process, she says.
Despite the confidentiality debate, the search committee moved ahead by sending out a request for proposals to several executive search firms. A search firm first proposed Arthur Smith as a possible candidate in 1990. Smith was acting president at the University of South Carolina at the time.
Some faculty members on campus tend to want to open the search, at least when the finalists are chosen.
Joe Andrade, bioengineering professor and former college of engineering dean, says he believes that the next president must possess "absolutely exquisite communication skills." Therefore, he believes, the two or three finalists should give a number of talks around campus and in the community to give people a chance to evaluate how well the candidates communicate.
It matters to graduate student and former ASUU president Brett Graham BS'96 that the next president be an excellent communicator. But the skill is only one he or she will require to present an overall vision for the University, he says.
"The value of a degree, those already given and those yet to be awarded, is directly tied to the amount of respect for the university president," Graham says. "Buildings come and go, academic programs come and go, but the respect that the president commands is what ultimately endures."
James Thalman is a writer in the University News Service.