Saturday, March 29, 2014

First Meeting of the Advisory Search Committee, March 21, 2014

I attended the first Presidential Search Advisory Committee meeting Friday, March 21, and I plan to attend as many of the open meetings as I can. I am attending as a guest rather than as a member of the committee, for there’s no seat at the table for the UFF (which I’ve found has surprised many of the faculty members I’ve talked to lately).   

My objective with this blog is to report my observations of the search process through the lens of both a faculty union president and an academic. My comments here are certainly my own.

The primary goals of the first committee meeting were introductions and the selection of a search firm, though there was also some discussion regarding Sunshine Laws and the potential exemption for presidential searches (HB135/SB728).[1][2]  One thing that struck me immediately was the focus on the word advisory, for the Board of Trustees (which of course are political appointees) are the ultimate decision-makers, and three of them are on the advisory search committee, including the chair of the BOT.  

There were three search firms for the Advisory Committee to choose from, and each firm was interviewed via Skype (though unfortunately for both parties, the technology failed for the first and the third search firms—they had to call in via conference call instead).  I have to say that I was surprised, yet not so surprised, at the outcome of this process.

The first firm that was interviewed, Greenwood/Asher & Associates, Inc., is a women-owned firm headquartered in Miramar Beach, Florida.[3] Founders Dr. Jan Greenwood, who earned her Ph.D. at Florida State University and was named as one of FSU’s Distinguished Alumna in 2012, and Dr. Betty Turner both served as tenured professors and presidents of universities. As evidenced in their proposal, they have extensive experience with higher education in Florida, including working with approximately 40 various searches in the State of Florida alone. They highlighted their “diversity-friendly” reputation in their interview and in their proposal.

To me, one of the most interesting parts of the interview was Dr. Greenwood’s answer to the question posed by committee member Representative Jimmy Patronis (R-Panama City) about the proposed exemptions to the Sunshine Laws.  She responded that Sunshine Laws do not make searches better or worse—just different. I think this is an important point as the argument for secrecy is that universities cannot recruit qualified candidates if the names of candidates are made public. However, this is a tough sell considering the quality of recent hires, including FSU’s Eric Barron and Florida A&M president Elmira Mangum, under the current Sunshine Laws. 

The second firm R. William Funk & Associates is owned by R. William “Bill” Funk and is headquartered in Dallas, Texas.[4]  According to the firm’s proposal, Funk & Associates have recruited presidents for more than 2/3 of public AAU institutions. The proposal also noted the firm’s record of recruiting women and minorities and that the Chronicle called Funk the “guru of higher education recruiting.” In his interview, Mr. Funk made a point to note his record recruiting non-traditional candidates (i.e., politicians) and mentioned at least twice that his firm recruited Mitch Daniels, former Governor of Indiana, to be president at Purdue University. 

This struck me as significant. This is the same Mitch Daniels who, while president of Purdue, was paid to speak at a conservative think tank fundraiser, violating his pledge to remain nonpartisan.[5][6] When Daniels was first named president, faculty, students, and alumni protested the decision based on his education record as governor and the fact that he’s not an academic.[7][8] It has also been noted that Daniels was approved as president of Purdue by the same Board of Trustees he had appointed as governor.[9] Daniels was criticized for attacks on academic freedom; when he was governor, he requested via email that the writings of the late historian Howard Zinn be banned from public university classrooms, and he “talk[ed] about cutting funding for a program run by a local professor who was one of his sharpest critics.”[10]

This is also the search firm that recruited T.K. Wetherell to become FSU President in 2002, Frank Brogan to be chancellor[11], and Dr. Mary Jane Saunders to become FAU President in 2010 (Saunders resigned in 2013 due to several controversies [12]--FAU "shunned" Funk's firm for its search to replace Saunders).[13] The firm is also currently searching for a president for the new Florida Polytechnic University,[14] a university created by politics and some might say vanity.[15]

Funk did express that it is important to be thorough, not fast, when doing a search, but it seemed to me that several people on the committee were hoping for a quick pick. 

The third candidate was woman- and minority-owned firm Storbeck/Pimentel & Associates with main offices in Philadelphia, PA, and Monterey Park, CA.[16] It was not clear whether the firm has worked in Florida, but the interviewee did explain the firm’s experience with variations of Sunshine Laws in other states. The proposal and the interview highlighted the firm’s success in providing diversity, for “it takes diversity to find diversity.” Twenty-five of the thirty-one members of the firm are women or minorities. 

After some discussion, the Committee approved the selection of R. William Funk & Associates.

And therein lies my surprised, but not surprised, comment. Surprised because it seemed to me that the first firm, with its dedication to diversity, its strong connections to Florida State University (with a founder whose Ph.D. was earned at FSU), its intimate knowledge of higher ed and politics in Florida, its extensive experience working in the Sunshine, and the fact that it's actually located in Florida, would be the best choice. Not surprised because the process, like much else in the Florida public education system, seems dominated by political interests and people who just might be a little too cozy with each other. I hope I am wrong. 

It is important to note the size of the search advisory committee as well. This year, 27 people are on the committee.[17] Only four members are faculty. I was told that the last search committee included 18 members, and four were faculty. So this is a much larger committee with the same number of faculty members. If I did the math correctly, faculty made up 22% of the advisory committee the last time FSU had a presidential search, and now just 15% this time around. What does this suggest regarding the role of faculty in higher ed decision-making?  

In light of this, we really need to make our voices heard, and to do so, faculty members need to attend these public meetings and provide comments on the Presidential Search website, I will continue to provide updates as well.

Until the next meeting…