Sunday, March 8, 2015

Critical Questions

So the university has arrived at the same point it was seven years ago when the last president was leaving, namely what does the university want in a president. Clearly CSU didn’t get what it needed or wanted in the current placeholder. Now maybe the Board will engage in a transparent process that answers these critical questions of want and need. My former faculty colleague, a distinguished scholar in residence Haki Madhabuti, has clearly articulated four basic criteria for a university president. They are stated to the left of this post. Beyond the basic qualifications what might the university want? Do they want a visionary, a president who can envision the university’s place in the academy, the community, the city, the state, and the nation.  Do they want a president prepared to lead the university to its bicentennial? Does the university want its next president to have experience at an HBCU or an urban university? Or does it want a president who has experience at a Research 1 institution? Is it more important they be a fund raiser or someone engaged in the day to day operations? With a predominantly female student population would a female president be preferred? By hiring an executive search firm from Florida, does this mean that the university might want a new president from outside of Illinois? Is a younger president (40-55) preferred over a president 65 or older? Is the university looking to build a team much like local sports teams? The Chicago Bears hired a new general manager who hired a new head coach. Should the university look for someone as Provost who might succeed the president without the need of a search if the president is 65 or older? Should the president have experience with faculty unions, collective bargaining and other labor activities? What sort of educational qualifications should we be looking for? Is a JD or MD more or less viable than a Ph.D.?    Does the university want a president with presidential experience or would someone without experience as a president be better? Does having experience on corporate boards of directors elevate a candidate or is that type of experience irrelevant to the educational enterprise?
Having a campus wide conversation with those most likely to be at the university after the exit of the departing regime would be critical to answering many of these questions. Once they are answered, then the job description could be written. You might ask, why is this conversation necessary and I would point to Haki’s fourth statement. “The prospective president must have a consensus buy-in from the faculty, students, administration and staff, therefore, arriving with a unity mandate to lead by joining a University community that has bought into his or her vision for the future." The aforementioned conversation could facilitate the consensus buy-in that Haki presents. It would be the first time in the more than twenty years that I have been here that such a conversation would occur.
It is through this process that the university has the possibility of getting the president it deserves. That process though, has some other moving parts that the Board would be wise to consider. First the university needs to appoint an interim president for the duration of this search process. The university must be prepared for the arrival of a new chief executive and this administration is woefully unprepared to do what is necessary to clean up the mess it has created. Second, the Board should support a process for all university constituencies to be heard during the search.  Third, the job description should be written by the search committee, not by the search firm and not presented to the committee. The process of engagement and collaboration builds the necessary trust for any buy-in to occur later.
Fourth, as faculty are the core of the university, their vision, thoughts, wishes must be heard and seriously considered. Faculty serving on the search committee should have regular contact with the Faculty Senate, the Union and colleagues in their colleges. Communication should be bi-directional. They must be heard.
Finally, the Board must not fall prey to a poverty mentality. The constant refrain from this failed administration of having no money has only been exaggerated by the election of the current governor. For the university to attract the high quality candidates, the starting salary must be attractive. Don’t lowball the candidates. I am sure the university community would support a president being paid $500K or more if they can raise several million dollars per year unlike the incumbent. The old adage of getting what you pay for is very appropriate here. To get high quality candidates requires making an investment. That investment isn’t just in the president. It is in the students, faculty, staff and community. It is an investment in the future, a future where education is likely to be more important rather than less. This university deserves a high quality president and has the resources to make that happen. It’s uncertain whether the Board has the will.
This conversation is but a step in answering critical questions. Searches for new presidents invite the university to ask what it wants in a president and what its wants itself to look like. Administrators mistakenly believe that STRATEGIC PLANNING processes address these questions. Strategic plans are generally a waste of time and a justification for the presence of administrators who make little contribution to the academic enterprise. Maybe less strategic planning and more conversation. Maybe more relationship building and less corporate doublespeak could address what needs to be addressed.  
The university is a mess. A huge clean up effort will be necessary to salvage it. Two questions should be asked and discussed. What kind of university do we want and what kind of president do we want and need to lead that university? It is my fervent hope the university is up for that conversation.


  1. Well, seeing that we are just approaching our Sesquicentennial, I would hope that our next President will not still be leading us in 2067 (52 years from now).


  2. I don't know. With the advances that biologists are making in the medical field.....