Saturday, June 09, 2007

UI Held Hostage Day 504 - Getting to Know You

June 9, 2007, 6:00, 8:15, 9:00, 10:00 a.m.; 12:05, 4:30, and 9:45 p.m.

What Will We Know and When Will We Know It?
Becker, Furmanski and Mason

As Senator Howard Baker famously phrased it during the Watergate hearings, speaking of President Richard Nixon, "What did he know and when did he know it?"

After this next week's carnival ends, the cleaning crews are sweeping up, and the lights dim, "What will we know and when will we know it?"

Well, we know a little more this morning than we did yesterday afternoon, thanks to a couple of features on Becker and Furmanski by the Press-Citizen's Rachel Gallegos ("Colleagues Say Becker is 'Ambitious,' 'Bright,'" Iowa City Press-Citizen, June 9, 2007, p. 7A) and Kathryn Fiegen ("Furmanski Brings Balance to UI Application," Iowa City Press-Citizen, June 9, 2007, p. 6A).

The results of my first, superficial efforts at Googling the two of them was reported in yesterday's blog entry, Nicholas Johnson, "Philip Furmanski" and "Mark P. Becker," in "UI Held Hostage Day 503 - 'Pretty Please,'" June 8, 2007.

The results of my Googling the third candidate -- whose identity has been revealed, but whose candidacy has not been confirmed, Purdue Provost Sally Mason -- is contained in, Nicholas Johnson, "UI Presidential Search: The Utility of Campus Visits -- And the Internet/Here's an Example of What's Out There on the Internet," in "UI Held Hostage Day 502 - Show Me the Web Sites," June 7, 2007.

Mark P. Becker -- "It's quiet out here; too quiet."
Who is this man?
I'm going to keep searching; there are a lot of Web sites I haven't examined yet. But at this point I'm really mystified at how a guy who spent 15 years at Minnesota and Michigan (associate dean, Michigan School of Public Health; dean, Minnesota School of Public Health) and has been Executive Vice President and Provost of the entire University of South Carolina system since 2004, could have been so successful in living his life beneath the Internet's radar.

He didn't reply to Rachael Gallegos' calls and emails. Maybe that's a part of his success; the reason why I have not (so far) come upon any feature stories about him. Maybe he refuses to talk to the press.

But it's almost like he's changed his name. Or hacked his way into Google and removed all references.

Didn't he ever run a triathlon? Hasn't he ever been arrested? Didn't his Little League team ever win a game? Wasn't he ever an officer of the local Rotary Club? What is it with this guy? Talk about a "stealth candidate"! What was the point of keeping this guy's name secret? Now that we know his name what do we know?

Of course, having served as co-director, with Dr. Richard Remington, of the University of Iowa's Institute for Health, Behavior and Environmental Policy, I am partial to anyone who has worked in public health. But I'd just like to know a little more about this fellow.

(Late morning I came across a Web site noting his membership (with Laura Voisinet) in "The Circle" (financial supporters) of "Theatre South Carolina." From Ms. Voisinet's name -- a much more productive Google search term than his -- (it turns out she's his wife) I found a link to some of the following items, including an interview in the "USC Times News and Headlines" that was apparently done shortly after his arrival (September 2004) in South Carolina. It provides a little insight into his thinking about educational administration issues at that time. It also reveals that they have a son who then planned on going to a college in the south, and a daughter who would probably now be a high school senior or recent graduate.

When at Minnesota they owned a home they sold for $600,000 at "721 West Lincoln Avenue: Built in 1909. The structure is a two story, 2681 square foot, nine room, four bedroom, two bathroom, frame house, with a detached garage. This structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the historic Hill District. The 1930 city directory indicates that William B. Geery, a bank governor, and his wife, Mabel Geery, resided at this address. The property was last sold in 2004 with a sale price of $600,000." Lawrence A. Martin, "Thursday Night Hikes: St. Albans/Lower Crocus Hill Architecture Notes, Part 2."

The University of Iowa Foundation should be pleased to discover that they are a very generous couple. They made a contribution to the "High School capital campaign" of the Rudolf Steiner School of Ann Arbor in 2006. The University of Minnesota School of Public Health Annual Report has a statement from him about accomplishments during his time there as Dean, comments about him by his successor, and notes the "above $10,000" category gift during 2003-2004 from him and Ms. Voisinet -- an amount they also contributed to the University of Minnesota's Minnesota Medical Foundation in 2003 and 2004 (although perhaps some of these reflect the same gift). The "Partners in Health" Annual Report for 2005 lists Laura Voisinet (alone) as a "Partners Circle" member/contributor. Two months ago she contributed to the Heathwood Hall Episcopal School, (Columbia, South Carolina) Annual Auction an "All natural, cozy, one-of-a-kind baby quilt." Dr. Becker, apparently having watched "The Big Salad" episode of "Seinfeld," apparently knew enough not to take credit for the gift of the quilt.)

Add-item June 11: "Our University President, Andrew Sorensen, was in attendance, and not just for 'face time' either, he stayed for the substantive presentations as well. His Presidency has been notable for a marked increase in the number of female faculty and administrators who have been hired and/or tenured at this University, and he and Provost Mark Becker deserve a lot of credit for that" (emphasis supplied). "Women's Studies at the University of South Carolina," March 2, 2007.

Philip Furmanski by contrast is out there. As I noted yesterday, I found five out of the first 10 Google hits -- from a total of 1130 -- to be of some relevance.

As with many of us, Dr. Furmanski "married above himself" (as Lyndon Johnson used to put it). Susan Wheeler, his wife, who did part of her growing up in the Midwest, is -- among other things -- the author of four books of poetry, all well reviewed, and the latest of which won the Iowa Poetry Prize. She's also recently published her first novel.

Furmanski made himself available to the Press-Citizen's Kathyn Fiegen, and was open in providing her the information she was able to report this morning.

This afternoon, as I briefly got back into the 1130 sites -- now 1160 -- I found one that illustrates his organized, no nonsense approach to management; you might want to look at his presentation reported in the minutes of the Information Technology Strategic Planning Committee, November 29, 2004. Here's another, addressing diversity, that required locals to look beyond their noses to national trends and best practices -- and that earned him a "laurel" from The Daily Targum, February 11, 2005.

All told, he reminds me a little of the Governor Bill Richardson political commercial, with the final line from the job interviewer: "So, what makes you think you can be president?"

Thus, it should be obvious that I'm impressed, and that I don't think what I am about to say is sufficient to be of any decisional significance when comparing him with the others.

Ms. Fiegen either picked up from her own Google search, or from the one I reported yesterday, the animal rights controversy in which Furmanski was involved while at NYU. Furmanski told Fiegen that (her words) "he had to work across lines to bring people to an understanding." Actually, I think there was more to it than that.

The issue that I see is not one regarding his position on the use of animals in research. Indeed, for someone who has supervised animal research the position he expressed to Kathryn Fiegen is about as good as it gets from the perspective of animal rights activists: minimal use and minimal pain.
"The use of animals in research is a very sensitive issue," he said. Furmanski said, as a scientist, he equates responsible, regulated animal testing with advances in science. But, he said, the use should be minimal and steps should be made to reduce pain for the animal.
So that's not the issue.

The issue has to do with one's practices with regard to transparency, candor, honesty, fairness and ethics in designing strategies and public relations positions when dealing with protests and controversy. It's a set of issues that just happened to arise in the context of an animal rights controversy.

At the outset, let me make abundantly clear that I have not confirmed, and have no way of knowing, the truth of what the Web site reports. It -- like any other source of information in hard copy or from interviews or the Internet -- would need to be tested and confirmed.

But what it says is:
Last year, Philip Furmanski, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at New York University, sent an e-mail memo to members of the Biology Department concerning "a resurgence of activity among animal rights groups focusing on NYU," and in particular on the construction of a laboratory which will conduct experiments on animals on the top floor of the Main Building at NYU.

In the memo, Furmanski said that one of the organizations, SEAL or Students for Education and Animal Liberation at NYU, was "attempting to directly recruit students and will be holding meetings and probably protests on campus from time to time." Furmanski advised fellow faculty members to "keep a low profile." For, he argued, "there is little to no awareness of the presence of animals [in laboratories] at Washington Square and we want to keep it this way. Even the construction on the roof [of Main Building] is intended to be just another 'biology laboratory'." He continued: "If any students approach you regarding this issue, the response is that we do everything that is legally and morally required to assure the health and well-being of any animals.... Above all please try to be discreet and take care to keep the profile of any animal usage as low as possible."

This memo found its way into the hands of Jonathan Weintraub, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences at NYU, who brought it to the attention of authorities at a town hall meeting on November 20th. Weintraub vociferously demanded that the University begin an open dialogue on the subject. After a few minutes of discussion, the meeting was abruptly halted by the presiding official. A week or so later, Weintraub was charged with disrupting University proceedings and interfering with others' rights and told to appear before a University tribunal. The tribunal finally decided last month to suspend Weintraub for a semester, but not impose the punishment unless, ran the ruling, "Mr. Weintraub is found, through a University disciplinary process, to have violated a code of conduct or policy applicable to New York University students."
Martin Rowe, "What's Up with NYU?" Satya Magazine, April 1, 1998. I'm certainly not going to speculate, interpret or comment upon that story. But it is yet one more example of the subject to which we next turn our attention:

Googling and "Minutiae." A thoughtful and for the most part flattering anonymous comment entered into yesterday's blog entry characterizes what I am going through on the Internet with my Googling of these candidates as "minutiae." I will set forth the comment in full and then respond.

I very much appreciate your blog and your good sense on much of the presidential search. I must admit I am mystified, however, at your call for the search committee to reveal names of books and publications they looked at, links to websites they looked at, etc. I cannot think of one search for anything, including a major administrator at a public institution, here or elsewhere, for which that level of minutiae about a search process has been shared. I don't totally buy the "we don't have enough time argument," either. Yes, it's all a very compressed time frame. But names of candidates for almost all administrative positions at the UI, not just president, have been announced the day before arrival in the past, and no one said boo about it. Again, I'm with you on 99% of what you're saying, and certainly there have been missteps on Search II. But some of the suggestions/requests you're making seem kind of out of touch with reality, or asking for things that are far beyond anything I can recall anyone doing under other circumstances, even screwed up circumstances.
(1) It's unprecedented to ask for relevant Web sites. ("I cannot think of one search . . . for which that . . . has been shared." "[The] requests [for Web sites] are far beyond anything I can recall anyone doing . . ..") I have neither basis for nor desire to disagree with those assertions. But since I have spent much of my life, in a variety of roles, proposing we do things that have never been done before, I don't find the fact that the suggestion is unprecedented a good reason for rejecting it. (I have always, however, been quite willing to acknowledge that perhaps 90% of what results from my brainstorming should be rejected out of hand -- and regularly change my mind. The question, for me, is whether this particular proposal belongs in the 90% or the 10%.)

(2) I have been accessing information from (and posting information to) the Internet since the late 1970s. I find it an absolutely remarkable resource. Of course, the information it contains has to be evaluated -- as does the information in journals and hard copy books. Yet I remain amazed at the number of people -- including well educated academics -- who at this late date are still not making the full use of this resource that might be useful to them (including when evaluating new employees). So it may be that the reason my suggestion sounds so unprecedented is that we are still, for many, operating in the dawn of the Information Age.

(3) "Minutiae." The limitations on a candidate's curriculum vitae, interview, public presentation, and the comments of their references is that they tend to create a disproportionately positive impression.

* CVs, which have even been known to have been faked, are notorious for their lack of negative information.

* Most individuals who would even apply, let alone become a finalist, for a major university presidency have long since developed the social, public speaking, and presentation skills necessary to "put their best foot forward" -- for at least as long as an interview process is likely to last.

* A candidate's current (and potentially former) colleagues may fail to mention the candidate's negatives for any one of a variety of reasons. They may be anxious to get rid of him or her. They may fear litigation. They may feel indebted. Their loyalty may be such that they would be willing to purger themselves in court rather than tell what they know. They may still be following their grandmother's advice: "if you can't say anything real nice, it's better not to talk at all is my advice" (from the lyrics to "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone").
Now I'm not suggesting that the hiring process should be designed to savage applicants' reputations. And I'm certainly not suggesting that a single negative fact should be disqualifying -- or that rumors and gossip should be accepted as fact.

We all have things in our past that we might hope would remain out of the public eye, or that we might have handled differently at the time. But, as Willie Nelson sings, "There is nothing I can do about it now." ["I know just what I'd change/If I went back in time somehow/But there's nothing I can do about it now."] We can only hope that while our record is out there, "warts and all," that we will be judged fairly by those whose lives are also a mixed bag.

At a minimum, a Google search may find information on Web sites to flesh out one's sense of an applicant, information that is neither overwhelmingly positive or negative, but can put a human face on what are otherwise cold, conventional facts about an academic career. For example, that David Skorton had a great sense of humor, played the saxophone and flute, and hosted a radio program about jazz -- among a great many other facts about him -- were not things one would find on a CV, and yet were a part of his effectiveness as an administrator.

I enjoy learning about a person's early years, family, hometown and upbringing. Their early interests as a kid. Their later participation in community organizations' boards and activities. Their sports and hobbies. Where they have traveled. Musical or other talents. Their political experience. Their toughest challenges.

If I'm actually involved in hiring them for a position I'd like to know as much as possible about how they relate to fellow workers -- and the public. As Southwest Airlines says, "We hire for attitude and train for skills." I'm not interested in our having to train a university president. But I am very interested in "attitude" -- how they treat the cleaning people in their building, and the wait staff in restaurants (folks usually overlooked in the interview process).

But a thorough Google search may also find items that -- while they often can be explained, do need to be. One drunk driving incident is one thing; a string of convictions might call for more inquiry. Charges of sexual harassment may have been minor and dismissed -- or may be much more serious. An exclusion of public (or faculty, or student) participation may have provoked widespread protests, leading to a candidate's departure from a prior university. Or, as with the Facebook "Hogan's Heros," there may be stories about their exceptional populariy elsewhere. They may have supported -- or fought tooth and nail -- efforts to unionize graduate students or others on campus.

[While a distinguished visiting professor for a semester at University of Wisconsin, Madison, I got caught in such a crossfire. I insisted on continuing to teach, rather than either canceling classes (in support of the graduate student union organizers), or requiring students to cross picket lines (in support of the university president's union-busting strategy). As punishment, I and the others who took this approach were denied our last month's paychecks. We sued, and of course recovered. It was a stupid, vindictive move on the president's part. I suspect it never showed up on his/her resume, and may well never have been mentioned by friends of the president who served as references for the president's subsequent job applications.]

So I don't think we're talking about "minutiae" here -- whether it's Internet information that just puts a human face on a candidate, or information that is relevant to the hiring decision (even if not a "deal breaker" -- or maker).

4. Finally, as I explained yesterday, I am not suggesting that Search Committee II is legally or otherwise obliged to make public what it believes to be relevant Web sites. "All I am saying is, give us a chance." If the Committee really wants meaningful input from the University and Iowa City communities in its process -- and given the short time frame, that remains a real question (as another "comment" to yesterday's blog entry points out) -- the more information the Committee provides us about the candidates the better the reactions we can provide. If all we are going to have are the candidates' CVs, and a slick, rehearsed half-hour presentation with a few questions, our evaluations will of necessity be pretty superficial.

Again, I am not talking about private, confidential information. I am not talking about the Committee members' deliberations about the information they have found. I am not talking about why they found those sites relevant, or what portions of them they focused upon. All I am talking about is information that is a part of the public record -- information that is available to anyone from the Internet -- the URLs of the Web sites the Committee thought useful. It's just that it takes a little time to find the useful needles in that haystack. More time than we have during this next week. Search Committee II has, hopefully, done the search and found the most relevant Web sites for each candidate. To refuse to let the public know what those URLs are is a kind of shooting itself in the foot, "dog in the manger" (if I may mix metaphors and parables) approach -- IF (that's a "big if") they really want our input.

More to come . . .
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2 comments:

Anonymous said...

It seems you have misinterpreted my comment; I apologize if I was not clear. In your post today you said, I "characteriz[e] what I am going through on the Internet with my Googling of these candidates as 'minutiae.'" I am not characterizing your Googling and the things you're finding as minutiae; you're exactly right that this is all useful information. I am trying to say that it seems to me not entirely reasonable to ask a search committee to reveal publicly the websites that they looked at in a search--I mean the "minutiae" of the search process. This is not to say that the websites themselves nor the information in them is minutiae. Even within a short time frame, if someone outside the search committee desires to Google a candidate (a great thing to do), it's not a hard thing to do on your own. Given everything that a search committee has to do, I think it's a bit much to ask them to provide weblinks of things they've looked at.

Eric A. Blair said...

Can we just hire someone and all move on? It's time for everbody to give a little here and realize its in everyone's best interests; Students, Faculty, Staff, Alums, and other interested parties & stakeholders to get a person in place that we hope will stay a while and provide SOME continuity. From what I see of the three, it seems they are some capable people. I want to give this process and the person it produces a chance to succeed. We all love the UI. I am a third generation graduate myself. Let's hope we have good interviews and a president in place in short order.