A committee looking for a new UND president held its first meeting last week, so it might be too soon to suggest that it has fallen into the same old familiar rut. But it’s tempting.

Members decided to hire a search firm based in Washington, D.C., though at least some members of the Board of Higher Education had argued against hiring an out-of-state firm. Chancellor Mark Hagerott disagreed, arguing that the committee should turn to a roster of firms it has used in the past.

The winning bidder was AGB, based in Washington, D.C. The state will pay $47,000 for its services, plus up to $10,000 in expenses. The same firm charged about $150,000 to find the last UND president, Mark Kennedy.

The price is less this go-round because members of the committee have held “listening sessions” with the Grand Forks community and with faculty and staff. More sessions are planned for September, after students return for the fall semester.

These sessions had a second purpose: to jumpstart the process of finding a new president. That imperative seemed to lessen during the meeting Thursday, as members decided to include language in the job description that promised “best consideration” to applications received by mid-September, but to continue to receive applications until the position is filled.

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This will probably broaden the field of candidates, because the job could begin mid-summer next year – the traditional start of the academic year in most places – rather than at the end of the calendar year.

The committee also softened language that required “demonstrated commitment” to UND and North Dakota. The new language asks that applicants show “passion for UND, the state and higher education.”

A good part of the meeting was a kind of lovefest, with Chancellor Hagerott praising the firm and predicting that its search would have a great result.

That would be a good thing; by the end of the search, the firm will have taken upwards of a quarter-million bucks from the state. That includes the search for a president of Mayville State University, which found Brian Van Horn, a Kentuckian who has had initial success.

Van Horn was hired after a new law closing the selection process was passed by the 2017 Legislature. A briefing and questions about the new law took up a big share of the 120-minute meeting. The law provides that names of applicants must be kept secret until the board names them as finalists. Then at least three names must be forwarded to the Board of Higher Education.

Hagerott called the law “a great legislative victory,” and he predicted it would mean that sitting presidents will apply for the UND position. Members spent some time speculating about whether the law would allow the committee to bring semifinalists to UND. That idea was rejected, however, because it would be hard to hide a candidate on campus.

The new law has another unexpected consequence. It requires the committee to name at least three finalists – even if fewer are favored. Dr. Casey Ryan of Grand Forks, co-chair of the committee, said he’d tell the Board of Higher Education the committee’s preference. As the board’s representative on the committee, he’s in a position to do that. The other co-chair is Denny Elbert, former dean of the UND School of Business and Public Administration.

The board and the system office have a long history of trouble with the state’s open meetings and records law. Eric Olson, the assistant attorney general assigned to the system, described the state’s sunshine laws as “robust.” He imagined a number of troubling scenarios for committee members and suggested what members should do to avoid violations.

So far, the committee’s decisions suggest a continuation of the old rut. This isn’t surprising. Hagerott had insisted on a nationwide search with an open-ended job description, and he got both of those things. The committee itself seems fully engaged; every member took part in Thursday’s discussion.

Thursday’s decisions change the dynamic of the search by broadening and prolonging it – eventualities that some members of the Board of Higher Education had hoped to prevent. That urgency diminished, one member said, because “We’ve got a lot of confidence in the interim president.” That’s Josh Wynne, who continues as vice president for health affairs and dean of the College of Medicine and Health Sciences.

Wynne has made clear that he will take full advantage of his new power as president. In a meeting with the Herald’s editorial board, he said, “I intend to act as president. ... I am the president.” He also indicated that colleagues at other universities had urged him to pursue the job because he’d be better able to build the Medical School as president of the university than as dean of the college, which could be a hint about his own candidacy.

We won’t know, of course, unless his name shows up on the list of finalists, and we don’t know when that will be – and may not find out because once the committee begins considering applications, its meetings will be closed and we’ll all be in the dark.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.