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Help Wanted: Local Colleges Search For New Leaders

An archway entrance to Saint Louis University
chuteme | Flickr | Creative Commons
An entryway of Saint Louis University.

Updated at 3:23 p.m. Mon., Feb. 17, with announcement of new SIU president. Some of the jobs came open suddenly, one at the end of a long campus standoff and still others quietly at the end of long, productive tenures, but they all have resulted in room at the top of the ivory tower:

At least four local schools – Saint Louis University, Harris-Stowe State University, St. Louis Community College and the Southern Illinois University system – have vacancies in the office of their top administrator or did until Monday, when SIU named a new president.

Fontbonne University just completed its search for a new president with the naming of J. Michael Pressimone earlier this month.

And in the University of Missouri system, R. Bowen Loftin took over as chancellor of the Columbia campus Feb. 1, about two years after Tim Wolfe became president of the entire four-campus system.

Each of the schools faces the same question: How do you match the perfect candidate to the perfect position?

Turnover at the top of academia is hardly a new story. The average tenure of the head of an American college or university was 8.5 years in 2007, the last time such a measure was reported by theAssociation of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

Of course, some chief executives last a lot longer than that. At Harris-Stowe, for example, Henry Givens announced his retirement in 2011 after leading the campus for 32 years.

But others tenures fall far short of that. Givens’ successor, Albert Walker, took over at Harris-Stowe in October 2011 and was gone two years later.

At Saint Louis U., the Rev. Lawrence Biondi stepped down last year, ending his 26-year presidency following protracted protests by students and faculty about his leadership. Both schools named interim leaders from within their ranks.

Dennis Golden’s lengthy service at Fontbonne, which began in 1995, will culminate in his retirement at the end of June. But at St. Louis Community College, Myrtle Dorsey’s stint as chancellor, which began in 2011, ended quite publicly last year in the wake of the administration’s response to an attack on a student on the Meramec campus. The incident also led to the resignation of the president at Meramec.

Now, searches to replace all of them are underway, just completed or in the discussion stages. To help spread the word and attract the widest possible field of applicants, outside firms generally get involved. And the quest to find just the right candidate gives schools a reason to take a step back and figure out just what qualities they are looking for in a leader.

So at Harris-Stowe, the call went out for “an inspirational leader," one "responsible for ensuring that the academic, fiscal and operational activities of Harris-Stowe are conducted in alignment with its mission, strategic plan and priorities, and are consistent with the best practices of colleges and universities.”

Saint Louis U. formulated its description after a series of meetings on campus,  discussing questions whether Biondi’s successor should be a Jesuit, as all previous presidents have been but no longer have to be according to revised bylaws. The resulting 10-page document covers everything from collegiality to familiarity with a medical campus to fund-raising to an appreciation for the balance between academics and athletics – and a dedication to the Jesuit mission.

And when SIU began seeking someone to lead its entire system and succeed the retiring Glenn Poshard -- who became president in 2006 after 10 years in Congress and an unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign -- it issued a 16-page “presidential search white paper” spelling out a vision for the campuses and the background in teaching, research, public service and decision-making that its new leader should have.

Monday, the Associated Press reported, the school announced that Randy Dunn, a former state superintendent of education in Illinois and currently president of Youngstown State University, would succeed Poshard as SIU president.

A monumental task

The searches generally proceed along a familiar path.

A school’s governing body names a committee including representatives of a range of campus groups and sometimes outsiders as well. A search firm is hired to help spread the word and cast the widest possible net, and a timetable is established. The large group of initial applicants dwindles to a handful who come to campus for a closer mutual look.

Then, the search committee recommends one finalist, with the actual hiring left to the school’s governing board.

Once the names of prospective presidents begin coming in, the search committee has a lot of homework to do.

At Fontbonne, John Capellupo, who headed up the search committee that hired outside consultants, said 61 candidates submitted information, with 10 ending up getting the most serious consideration.

“We did read all of the stuff these people sent in,” he said, “and let me tell you, they sent in a lot of information. It was a monumental task.”

The semifinal list of seven came in for “hotel interviews,” flying to St. Louis and meeting with members of the search committee for interviews over a two-day period. Then, the list was narrowed to four, who came in for campus visits with a variety of different groups.

“That was where it got intense,” he said.

The final lap came in January, when the last interviews were completed and the board had a 90-minute discussion that led to Pressimone’s hiring. Capellupo said the discussion wasn’t exactly heated, which indicated to him that the committee had made the right choice.

At Mizzou, Dean Mills, the head of the journalism school who himself just announced his retirement, was co-chair of the search committee to succeed Chancellor Brady Deaton.

Credit University of Missouri website
Dean Mills

He wouldn’t give out details about numbers as the process made its way toward a final decision. But he did say that hiring an outside search firm really helped make sure the campus would have a good selection of candidates to choose from.

The firm – Storbeck/Pimentel of Los Angeles -- could really “beat the bushes” for good possibilities that may not surface in what Mills called an “over-the-transom” search.

Also, he said, such a firm “has a pretty good sense of how the culture and expectations of one campus may be different from another campus and which people might possibly be good fits and which might not. A search firm can do good vetting of candidates and be quite candid about strengths as well as weaknesses.”

His committee eventually forwarded to Wolfe, the system president, three names with no ranking. Wolfe then chose Loftin and sent his name on the system’s Board of Curators, who ratified the selection of the former Texas A&M president.

Asked if he had any overall advice for searches that were just about to get started, Mills noted that all campuses are different, so it was hard to generalize. But, he added, committees have to be in touch with what candidates are really looking for.

“We had lots of what we thought were very good, very credible candidates,” he said. “But keep in mind that you can’t talk about a general market or people who are available. Just because someone is willing to talk about a job doesn’t mean he or she would ultimately want the job.”

Open or closed?

One major point divides campuses: Should names of the candidates who apply for the top job become public before the final choice is made, or should confidentiality rule until the very end?

The primary issue is whether candidates’ interest in a new job might get them in trouble with their present employer.

At Fontbonne, Capellupo said it was important that the four finalists meet a wide variety of constituencies – teachers, students, staff, alumni – before the board made its final choice. So keeping their names secret at that point was not an option.

“Our consultants felt these candidates were such serious candidates, they had to go to the presidents of their current university and get a release that they should continue with the process,” Capellupo said.

“Once that happens, the cat was out of the bag. And it really gave us a great opportunity for everyone who interviewed them on campus to know as best they could who these people were.”

But at the University of Missouri, confidentiality reigned, both at the system level and for the chancellor at Columbia – not an easy task in a town where it seems that everyone you meet is either a real journalist or an aspiring one.

Mills feels strongly that the university made the right choice.

“It’s very hard for a journalist to defend confidentiality in most circumstances,” Mills said, “but I think this is one where it really is needed. Some people just won’t put themselves out there if they know that fact is likely to get around at their present job.

“If you think about what these searches are like, it makes sense. Just because someone lets his or her name be considered doesn’t necessarily mean they really want the job. To put at risk one’s current relationships for a job that, when you look at it more closely, you might not want just doesn’t make sense. I’m for openness everywhere, but think this is one of those situations where an institution is better served if the search is confidential.”

Jim Smith, a member of the Saint Louis U. board of trustees who is heading its search, feels the same way. In an interview last year, he said categorically that he wants the names of those seeking the job to remain under wraps.

“If you have a sitting president and that name gets out,” Smith said, “you can just imagine what that person’s board will do.”

Randal Thomas, who heads the governing board at Southern Illinois University, agrees, saying:

Credit SIU website
Randal Thomas

“You just won’t get the highest level candidates if they can’t receive confidentiality.”

At Harris-Stowe, Michael Holmes, who is heading the search, said the college has heard from more 70 candidates and is in the process of narrowing that field, first down a round of 7-10, then down to one or two before the final selection is made.

Until that point, the school plans to keep the names private, but the finalists’ names will not remain under wraps, he said.

The field so far comes from all over, but Holmes said that “St. Louis is well represented in the candidate pool.”

He added:

“It’s gone very well, a little better than expected, given the number of candidates that applied. Variety of candidates we have seen is very good…. We feel good about where are in the search.”

STLCC takes its time

The search at St. Louis Community College for a successor to Dorsey as chancellor hasn’t even begun yet. Craig Larson, head of the college’s board, said it decided to hire an interim chancellor, Dennis Michaelis,  who had retired from an administrative post in Texas, to give the school some breathing room.

Larson said that having Michaelis on board for a term scheduled to end in July 2015 will let the college take a hard look at what it needs to move forward and craft a search process to attract the right candidate.

Credit St. Louis Community College website
Craig Larson

He expects the process to begin in earnest after the April 8 election for members of the college’s board of trustees.

He noted that Michaelis is not in the running for the job permanently, so his hiring for the interim job will not be a factor in the upcoming search

“I think we’ll be starting more from scratch,” Larson said. “We did do a search three years ago, using a community college search service.”

He said that of the three finalists who surfaced in that search, the two who did not get the job would not be in contention at this point because they took positions elsewhere.

Larson said that after he retired from his job as an administrator in the Parkway School District, he was involved in searches, so he knows the value of using an outside firm. That doesn’t necessarily mean the college will be using one.

“I believe in search firms,” he said, “but the advantage of a search service is they can contact people. Sometimes the person you want to hire doesn’t even know they are looking for another job.

“I don’t think that’s our circumstance. We’re one of the largest community colleges in the country. People are going to be interested in us.”

When the college’s search narrows the field to three candidates, he does not think that confidentiality will remain in force.

“Once the three finalists are announced, it will be public,” he said, adding that they will be subject to a day of open interviews and forums to “get a sense of their background, what they see as their vision and their leadership style.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.