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Provost searches draw from narrow pools, limiting UNC’s options

When it came time to hire a new provost, UNC did everything by the book.

But when another search begins, administrators might need to find a new approach to solve the hiring equation.

For this year’s search, UNC followed a well-worn path:


How do we pay for searches?

The University’s Budget Committee allocates funds for administrative searches. A majority of the funds designated for searches are paid to search firms, but they also cover expenses related to travel and bringing candidates to campus.
The money is not from state appropriations, but rather from investment income. It also comes from facilities and administrative funds — “overhead” from research contracts and grants that reimburse the campus beyond the direct costs of the research project.

They formed a search committee, settled on a job description and followed most national higher education trends by hiring R. William Funk and Associates, one of the best-known search consulting firms in the field.

At the end of the search, the University did not come up with a new provost.

As the experience showed, search firms are drawing from a narrow pool of people, limiting the diversity and range of candidates available to universities for consideration.

And the last three expensive search processes all ended with UNC hiring from within its ranks.

At the moment, UNC has no searches on the horizon — due in part to Chancellor Holden Thorp’s decision to keep interim Bruce Carney in the job permanently after none of the finalists worked out.

Until then, Thorp says he will be looking for a new solution.

“I think the question is not whether any individual group — be it the committee or Bill Funk or anyone else — failed in this,” Thorp said. “The question is, ‘Are we going about this in the right way?’”

What UNC pays for

Bernadette Gray-Little announced her decision to step down as UNC’s executive vice chancellor and provost in May 2009 to become chancellor at the University of Kansas.

The executive vice chancellor and provost is the chief academic officer and No. 2 administrator at the University who oversees all academic departments, research and student affairs.

To replace Gray-Little, UNC formed a 17-member search committee and hired Funk’s company to facilitate the search, paying them $72,800 in non-state funds, plus expenses. The University’s budget committee allocated a total of $144,700 for the search.

Across the nation, the decision to hire a search firm is becoming an expected part of the hiring process. Universities pay large sums to these companies to identify, vet and interview potential candidates.

Officials have cited the firms’ abilities to conduct background checks and recruit candidates as the tangible services worth paying for.

“They’ve got a Rolodex file of potential candidates from all around the country, of people who want to be provost when they grow up,” said Robert Atwell, president emeritus of the American Council on Education, who has worked in the search firm business. “They’ve got that kind of list, and nobody else really does.”

Who do search firms find?

But whether that increasingly common process results in the most effective hires is still in question, both in terms of the types of candidates who are pulled from the Rolodex files and the degree to which they can be matched with an institution.

UNC administrators have said the process does not always achieve positive results even under the best of circumstances.

“Searches don’t always pan out the way you want them to,” said Bob Winston, chairman of the Board of Trustees.

Thorp said he thinks traditional search firms like Funk’s look at too narrow a pool of applicants and need to broaden their scope to find a more unconventional range of candidates.

“I think there are a lot of people out there who don’t know they want to do these jobs,” he said. “They don’t know they would be good at these jobs.”

Jean Dowdall, senior vice president at Witt/Kieffer, a search firm that has worked for UNC before, said the nature of a search for a provost, in addition to the position itself, inherently limits the number of qualified applicants.

“You want to hire someone from a peer institution, not from a smaller, less well-regarded institution. And then they just have to have incredibly impressive academic credentials,” Dowdall said.

She also said most candidates for provost are deans or mid-level administrators who view the provost position as a transitory one in their ultimate quest to become president or chancellor of a university.

“So you look at how many deans are out there, and how many are at the right kind of institution, and then how many are women and people of color, and you’ve reduced the number of people by a lot,” she said.

Challenges of diversity

Thorp and other administrators were criticized for a lack of diversity among the candidates — the four finalists for the provost position were all white males with science backgrounds, much like Thorp, Carney and Shelton Earp, chairman of the search committee.

Administrators are quick to point to the women and minorities who have served in top positions in recent years, including former vice chancellor for student affairs Margaret Jablonski. Gray-Little and former Senior Associate Provost for Finance and Academic Personnel Elmira Mangum are black women.

“Look at our history. We’ve had diversity,” Winston said. “You look at us right now, we might not look as diverse as we did when Bernadette (Gray-Little) was here. There will be times when it may look balanced or unbalanced either way.”

But those administrators have all left in the past year, and the majority of the current top administrators could retain their jobs for a significant period of time before another search occurs.

Dowdall agreed that it can be difficult to find minority candidates who come from diverse backgrounds.

“It may be that the smaller number of women and people of color have the background experiences to make them ready for that, and that there just aren’t that many in the pipeline yet,” she said.

Thorp said he sees the dilemma presented by search firm methods as a central issue to address.

“Higher education does need to rethink the way we do this,” Thorp said. “We definitely don’t look in enough places. I think higher education can do a much better job of looking more broadly for talent.”

Who UNC hires

Carney’s hiring represents at least the sixth time in recent years that UNC has hired an internal candidate for a top administrative job.

While the four finalists in the search were all external, and Thorp said he was open to outside candidates, administrators have also said they appreciate candidates who have a familiarity with how UNC operates — an attitude that experts said fits with national trends in hiring.

“I can see why the chancellor would make an appointment like that,” Dowdall said. “It makes good sense. And if you look historically at the appointments at Chapel Hill, many have been internal.”

Scott Zeger, one of the finalists for the job, said he was struck by the deep affection with which administrators and students spoke about the school when he came to visit.

“There is a palpable sense of belonging and being part of Carolina,” he said. “When you’re there, you’re used to that, but from another university, it’s really striking.”

Dowdall said she has seen an increase in schools hiring internal candidates as a result of budget shortfalls, both as a result of candidates being less willing to move across the country and of universities looking for individuals who already understand the politics behind the allocation of funds.

“There really does seem to be a pattern right now of continuity in a time of turmoil,” she said.

Dowdall acknowledged that there are downsides to hiring from within the school.

“The biggest theme you would be missing here is new blood, new ideas, more creative and different ways of doing things,” she said.

While Winston said he thinks the trend toward hiring internal candidates is not intentional, it will factor into future decisions.

“You couldn’t believe how many people complained we didn’t have anyone from outside,” he said of UNC a few years ago. “So it does ebb and flow, and we’ll probably focus harder on bringing outside blood in the future.”

Looking forward

Thorp said he thinks changes need to be made to the types of people the search firms target, but isn’t sure how to go about making that happen.

“It’s an analysis of a problem, not a proposal of a solution,” he said. “I’m not sure I know exactly how to change it.”

But the need to look outside the established pool of people will certainly stay on Thorp’s mind, despite the lack of searches at the moment.

Thorp pointed out that Carney, who is 63 years old, will eventually step down from the job, at which point he hopes he will have found a better way to conduct searches.

“One day, Bruce (Carney) will come in here and say ‘I’m tired of doing this.’ And we’ll gear up for a new way to find a replacement,” he said. “And hopefully I will have found people to give me good new ideas by then.”

UNC budgeted $490,072 to find these three:


Holden Thorp

Position: Chancellor
Years of search: 2007-08
Firm: R. William Funk and Associates
Amount paid for search: $213,581
Candidates: Individuals unknown, but six finalists included Thorp, two black males and two white females

Karen Gil

Position: Dean of College of Arts and Sciences
Years of search: 2008-09
Firm: Witt/Kiefer Executive Search Firm
Amount paid for search: $131,791
Candidates: Joel Martin of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Gil of UNC, Paul Armstrong of Brown University and Katherine Newman of Princeton University

Bruce Carney

Position: Executive vice chancellor and provost
Years of search: 2009-10
Firm: R. William Funk and Associates
Amount allocated for search: $144,700
Candidates: Philip Hanlon of the University of Michigan, Anthony Monaco of the University of Oxford, Jeffrey Vitter of Texas A&M University and Scott Zeger of Johns Hopkins University

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