The State Board of Higher Education is set to name an interim president at UND this week. Soon thereafter, a search committee tasked with naming a full-time president to replace Mark Kennedy likely will form.
Searches throughout the nation, including the one that named Kennedy the next president of the University of Colorado system, have been filled with controversy in recent years, but an expert in presidential searches says North Dakota can learn valuable lessons from them.
“I think the absolute key thing is transparency,” said Judith Wilde, chief operating officer and professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Virginia. Wilde is among a handful of people in the nation who study higher-education presidential search processes.
“Transparency," she said, "does not mean telling people afterwards what you’ve done.”
Wilde said it’s important for the entire community, including faculty, staff, students and the Grand Forks community as a whole, to be involved with the process and to know what’s going on the entire time. Individuals from each of these areas need to be represented on the search committee in a meaningful way, Wilde said.
“They need to know their thoughts and ideas for the university are being considered,” she said. “It means the search committee having a real role in what goes on. It means not coming up with one candidate at the end and rolling them out with a drumroll and saying ‘ta da, here’s your new president.’”
Gracie Lian, UND's incoming student body president, said the student voice is important in the search process.
“Students, better than anyone really, understand what we want to see in a future president for our university,” said Lian, of Grand Forks.
Lian said the next president, either an interim leader or a permanent president, should continue to embrace research work on campus. She also would like to see someone with some type of connection to Grand Forks, as UND and the city are so intertwined.
Wilde said one of the best networks of fact-checking and one of the most important voices in the process should be the faculty.
A letter to be sent to the State Board of Higher Education this week from former, current and incoming University Senate chairs asks the board to find a president “motivated to balance the institution’s history, the current role within the state, and the demands of the future.” The letter, signed by Ryan Zerr and Melissa Gjellstad, also asks the board to be transparent.
“We ask that you commit to a transparent process in the UND presidential search from start to finish – establishing the timeline, building the committee, selecting the search firm, and executing the plan,” the letter said. “Engage all campus constituents by asking for and listening to our feedback on desired leadership qualities and characteristics. Negotiate competing interests and make informed decisions about our forward trajectory based not on nostalgia but on an optimistic tomorrow.”
How many finalists?
There was a time in the not-so-distant past when the presidential search process was very open, Wilde said. However, in recent years, with increased use of search firms, the process has become more secretive with many boards opting to reveal just a single finalist, as was the case in Colorado when Kennedy was named the sole finalist for the president’s position.
Many in Colorado questioned the process used by the CU Board of Regents and wanted to see the process start over again to provide more transparency.
Since 2016, when Kennedy was named president at UND, open records laws have changed in North Dakota. The law previously allowed for nearly every candidate's name to be revealed in the search process simply by doing an open records request. However, a law passed by the Legislature restricts the number of names to be released; now, only the final three candidates are known to the public.
North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott previously has stated that the law change would be a positive for the university and the system because it gives candidates a chance to apply without having their name publicized -- that is, until they become a finalist.
In the past, a chief concern was that the best candidates would not apply, since their name would have been public from the beginning of the process, Hagerott said. That publicity could have created trouble at their current workplace.
Reached Friday, Hagerott said the university system is trying to balance transparency to the public with keeping applicants' names safe from potential workplace issues. Hagerott said he feels naming the final three candidates provides that balance.
Including faculty, staff and student feedback also is important, Hagerott said, noting each area will be incorporated in the search committee.
“We’ll have a few more mechanisms to make it more inclusive than Colorado,” he said.
Additionally, North Dakota’s SBHE functions very differently from the system in Colorado, where board members are elected to the position and have obvious political affiliation. In North Dakota, board members are appointed to the role by the governor and approved by the state Senate. A student has a vote on the board and faculty and staff members also play a role.
While search firms may tout that the best way to get the top candidates is to keep their names secret, that doesn’t mean it’s what is best for a university, Wilde said.
“A university is a public entity. It is funded, at least in part, by the public,” she said.
Wilde said firms can provide an important role at the beginning stages of the search, especially for planning purposes and to help boards that have not been through the process. However, she said their role should be minimal after that.
Additionally, universities should be keeping a record of the search process, including meeting notes, extended resumes and other related items so the public has a chance to review them if they so choose.
Search firms are private entities that do not have to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests.
In addition to being transparent, it’s important for hiring boards to have a good job description for the position. It should lay out what type of credentials a person already should have before applying, Wilde said.
Defining what constitutes a “successful search” can be difficult, Wilde said.
Search firms often have their own definition of “success,” which often includes how long a president is in office. Some search firms may say that having a president in place for 12 months is considered successful, while others may say the person has to stay at an institution for up to two years.
However, success should not be defined with numbers and dates alone, Wilde said.
“I would define success as faculty, staff, students, administration, the larger public are, in general, happy,” she said. “You’re always going to have a few people speaking against what has happened. But if a majority of people are happy with what’s happened, I would say that is successful.”