In searching for new UW president, secrecy was a must

The Dean of the UW's College of Arts and Sciences explains why many good candidates, particularly sitting presidents wary of sending alarming signals to donors, normally refuse to enter open searches.

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Ana Mari Cauce, Dean of Arts & Sciences at U.W.

The Dean of the UW's College of Arts and Sciences explains why many good candidates, particularly sitting presidents wary of sending alarming signals to donors, normally refuse to enter open searches.

As a participant on the Presidential Search Committee for a new leader at the University of Washington, I feel I'm in a good position to address a controversy about the need for confidentiality in such searches, even in public universities.

There was a time when the job of the president was substantially different for public and private universities, especially in terms of fund-raising, broadly defined. More specifically, private universities were primarily funded by tuition and private donations (and federal grants and research dollars, and, for institutions with medical schools and hospitals, from patient fees, etc.). In contrast, public universities were primarily funded by, well, the public through the Legislature and its allocation of taxpayer dollars.

As we all know, things have changed dramatically in the last few decades. Tuition dollars now outstrip state funding for many of the leading public universities, including the UW. Indeed, state funding is often less than 20 percent, and in some cases less that 10 percent of an institution's total funding (the UW is now in the latter category). Meanwhile, public universities, like private universities, carry out multi-billion dollar fund-raising campaigns from private donors. The mission of publics and privates remain fairly different, but fund sources are substantially similar — at least for top research universities.

Private universities have almost always conducted their presidential searches (and increasingly commonly their provost and dean searches) confidentially, not because candidates fear scrutiny from faculty but because they fear de-stabilizing their relationships with donors — both their ability to continue fundraising while they are candidates and to continue fundraising if their candidacies are unsuccessful.

Personal relationships with donors are an important part of fundraising efforts, and it is difficult to imagine that those relationships wouldn’t be affected by word getting out that a president was looking to leave. (Most assume that if someone is looking at one position, they are likely looking at others, and their leaving is just a matter of time.)

With public universities now as dependent on fund-raising as privates, we are seeing more and more publics moving to confidential searches. These days this practice applies not just at the president level: Michigan did not have a public search for their provost, and University of California/San Diego’s vice chancellor search is almost entirely confidential. Most importantly, if a university is interested in having high level sitting presidents as part of their candidate pool, a confidential search is pretty much necessary. This is not at all unusual for top public universities, including our peers like University of Michigan, University of Virginia, and the UC schools.

There are some exceptions. In some states, state law requires a more open process. But, how open is the process in such states? The University of Minnesota was conducting its search at the same time we were.  Minnesota state law requires that finalists for the search come on campus for an interview, and it also requires that any interviews with the regents (or more precisely a quorum of the regents) be public.

Once they had their four final candidates and were ready to move to on-campus interviews, two of them (believed to be sitting presidents) dropped out. Another one of the candidates was not moved to the final-final list by the regents, who interviewed the candidates in groups of three regents, thus getting around the need to make the meetings public. Finally, only one candidate (who was not a sitting president) was brought on to campus for a couple of days of interviews before being confirmed as president. I’m not convinced that this outcome was a more satisfactory situation.

I cannot say with any certainty that all of the final group of candidates interviewed for the UW presidency would have dropped out if the search had been more public. But, I can say with a great deal of certainty that some of the candidates in what was truly an excellent pool of finalists would have dropped out (or not even entered).  I don’t believe that would have served us well.

We had a robust search process, and there was reasonable faculty representation. The Faculty Senate president was not the only faculty member on the committee: the committee also included Pat Stayton from BioEngineering, Kenyon Chan from UW Bothell, Kellye Testy from Law, and myself. The committee also included a graduate student (GPSS president), an undergraduate representative (ASUW president), and several alumni and community leaders, as well as three regents. The committee was incredibly diverse, including at least five members of underrepresented minority groups, and at least three members who are openly LGBT.

The committee put in long hours inside and outside of meetings, was diligent in its reference checking, asked very direct and incisive questions of the candidates, and worked hard to think about the candidates’ effectiveness in working with UW’s many stakeholders — including students, staff, faculty, the legislature, donors, and community leaders. The regents, who already put in long pro bono hours in service to the UW, did even further vetting and the diligence and care they put into this decision was, in my opinion, both admirable and praiseworthy.

I would love to have seen a more open process. I believe in openness and transparency. On a personal level, I threw my hat into one administrative “race, was openly a finalist, and did not get the position as dean of undergraduate education about eight years ago. It wasn’t fun to “lose” publically, but it wasn’t so awful either. I was also openly a finalist for the dean’s position I now hold, even though I worried it would make me less effective as the executive vice provost if I wasn’t chosen.

Each time the interview process was a good learning experience and I had more credibility entering my present job because I went through the interview process. I do wish that we could have done that for the presidential search. However, I honestly believe it would not have been in our own best interest. And, whatever you think about the confidentiality or secrecy of the process, it’s important not blame our new president, Michael K. Young, for a process that he did not design.

I am extremely pleased with our choice of a president with excellent credentials as a faculty member, as an academic, and as a civic leader. Our new president has an excellent reputation of working well and collaboratively with faculty (including faculty governance), staff, and students. He has incredible integrity and a deep commitment to diversity, in the full sense of the word. It will be an honor for me to work with him.


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