Saturday, August 29, 2015

Hiring Candid, Courageous University Presidents


"Business Background: Enough for University President?" September 2, 2015-present (updated) [this is the blog post that contains the repository of documents, news stories, and opinion pieces regarding the Board of Regents' presidential selection process and early selection of Bruce Harreld]

Nicholas Johnson, "Seven Steps for Transitioning University," The Gazette (online), September 27, 2015 (with links to 7 other related Gazette Writers Circle opinion pieces); hard copy: Nicholas Johnson, "Better Ways to Pick a UI President," The Gazette, September 27, 2015, p. C5

"UI's President Could Have Been Chris Christie," October 3, 2015

August 29, 2015

An Exchange with UI Presidential Finalist, Oberlin President Marvin Krislov

Links to Sections

Governance Model
Candor and Courage
President Krislov Exchange
Access Denied (but with video of exchange)
Regents' Disturbing Process
Regents' Search Fiasco of 2006-2007
Jeff Charis-Carlson's Report
Vanessa Miller's Report


Governance of major, public, research universities with associated hospitals, football and other athletic programs is somewhat bizarre in its complexity.

A central issue is how the governing board members of such an institution, and its president, consider and construct their relationship. Can the board, or even individual members of the board, tell the president what to do? If and when they give the president an order, is it their expectation that when they look back on the matter they will discover that, like Iran-Contra-arms-for-hostages Lieutenant Colonel Ollie North, the president will have "saluted smartly and carried it out"? Or, when compromise seems impossible, will the president stand up for what is perceived to be the best interests of the institution, rather than the contrary wishes of board members?

Few individuals coming on a board for the first time -- whether corporate for-profit, non-profit, public (city council; school board) -- have previously given much thought to governance. If they have given any thought at all to their role, it is more likely to involve the substance of the organization's challenges and opportunities.

But chaos or worse will result if no attention is given to "job one," clearly articulating the governance model, the process of decisionmaking: how and by whom decisions are made (i.e., the role of chief executive and board; defining what's delegated to the executive as "administrative"); how board members will relate to each other; the limitations on individual board members' authority (i.e., do members only speak and act as a board, rather than as individuals, albeit with public dissenting opinions?).

See collection of materials at, Nicholas Johnson, "Board Governance: Theory and Practice," where can be found, among other things, the writings of John Carver. As Carver has famously observed, most advice regarding board governance simply enables boards to do the wrong things better.

Candor and Courage. Of course, one of the most serious shackles on executives' candor and courage is fear of losing one's job. For middle level executives and supervisors this merely prevents the institution from enjoying the benefits of the suggestions from some of its best informed, loyal employees.

But when it restrains a university president, eager to please the board (in Iowa, the Iowa Board of Regents), it can be disastrous. It's contrary to the most effective board-administrator governance practices, severely weakens the president's ability to relate to stakeholder groups, enables the possibility of cronyism, and creates high risk of decisions improvidently arrived at.

For that reason, one of my preferences regarding university presidents is that their lifestyle and self-esteem not be tied to their income. (a) Maybe they have few major expenses, have trained themselves to live on relatively little, and are confident "enough" will always be available. (b) Maybe they have the confidence that they are in sufficient demand that there always will be other jobs out there providing very generous pay. (c) Maybe they are close enough to retiring that being fired a few years early would almost be welcome, should it happen. (d) Maybe they are otherwise independently wealthy. (e) Or possibly they even hold a perspective analogous to what then-Senator Joe Biden once shared with me: "Nick, there are some things worth losing an election for" -- in the context of a university president, "there are some things worth being fired for."

President Krislov Exchange. These were some of the thoughts going through my mind when I had an exchange with the first of the University of Iowa's four finalists, Oberlin President Marvin Krislov, during his public forum (a candidate, not incidentally, whom I liked and thought did well with his presentation).

Here is where you can watch the video of our four-minute exchange on August 27, 2015, in the Iowa Memorial Union. It starts about 45 minutes into the full video and runs from minute 46:47 to 51:07.

Access Denied. That is to say, you could have watched it if those responsible for the professions of "transparency" regarding the candidates' public forums -- which until today (August 29) included individual, publicly accessible Web pages for each candidate, complete with videos -- had not silently and secretly somehow denied public access to them sometime between Friday and Saturday (today, August 29, 2014).

Fortunately, I was able to find a clip from the public forum on YouTube, and you can watch it here:

But here is what you were told on Saturday, August 29, when you went to the Web page for Marvin Krislov ("candidate A"), formerly available at this site, "" -- "Access denied/You are not authorized to access this page." The warm welcome on the Web page for Tulane Provost Michael Bernstein today was identical. So much for transparency:

This is only the latest in a number of very disturbing features of this Regents' process for UI presidential selection: (a) the "search committee" (which included faculty and others, as distinguished from the expensive "search firm") was dismissed before the first finalist arrived on campus. (b) The entire on-campus presence of the four finalists is to be a mere four days (with an intervening weekend). (c) Public revelation of candidates' names is deliberately being withheld until the last minute. For example, the campus and public will not know who will be here on Monday, August 31, until Sunday night (which as a practical matter, for many people, means Monday morning). (d) As a result, there will be somewhere between little and no time for those with other obligations to search Google and other sources, call persons at the candidates' institutions or others known to have worked with them, read candidates' scholarship, or otherwise meaningfully inform themselves. (e) To the extent the faculty or members of the public do have information or opinion to share, as I understand it, comments are to be filtered through to the Regents by way of the search firm which, of course, has a conflict of interest insofar as revelations of a candidate's negatives that the firm failed to uncover, or did uncover but failed to pass on, tarnishes its professional reputation.

Regents' Search Fiasco of 2006-2007. For comparison, an even more disastrous process of UI presidential search occurred in 2006-07, and was chronicled here in a series of blog essays that the Chronicle of Higher Education characterized as "one of the most comprehensive analyses of the controversy." It began with "UI President Search I," November 18, 2006, the first series, that continued on through "UI President Search XVIII - Dec. 26-31," December 26, 2016. During 2007, the series was titled, "UI Held Hostage," beginning with "Day 54": "UI President Search - UI Held Hostage: Day 54," January 9, 2007 (for an explanation of where "UI Held Hostage" came from, see "UI President Search - Jan. 1-7, 2007," January 1, 2007). That series ended with "UI Held Hostage Day 505," June 10, 2007 and "More UI Prez Links," June 24, 2007. Each of those hundreds of blog essays, often lengthy, can be found by going to the "Blog Archive" in the right hand column of any of the blog essays (including the one you're now reading) and clicking on individual years, and then months.

Jeff Charis-Carlson's Report. Meanwhile, here is how the exchange was reported by Jeff Charis-Carlson for the Des Moines Register and Iowa City Press-Citizen, and by Vanessa Miller for The Gazette, with the relevant excerpts from their stories. The links will take you to their full reports.

One of the more lively exchanges came when Nicholas Johnson, a professor of law, provided a multiple-choice question on what Krislov would do if the Iowa Board of Regents demanded he take an action that he felt was completely counter to the interests of the institution.

Would he, Johnson asked, a) simply do it; b) explain why it was a wrong decision, but do it anyway; c) refuse to do it; or d) refuse to do it and be ready to offer a resignation if necessary?

“I’m a firm believer in finding common ground in understanding what people want and why they want it and posing alternative and options,” Krislov said. “There are times when one may come to an impasse, and then there are ethical and moral questions to be determined. I will tell you that it is not worth it to me to have any job in the United States of America if I have to sacrifice my ethical and moral principles, I will not do that. … But I don’t believe we will need to get to that point.”

Johnson said afterward that he appreciated the conviction behind Krislov’s answer, but given that such conflicts are inevitable between the university and its governing board, Johnson said he didn’t think Krislov actually answered the question.
Jeff Charis-Carlson, "Choosing the Next UI President: Krislov Stresses Humility, Morals; After Oberlin and Michigan, He Says Past Provides Insight," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 28, 2015, p. A1. (The Des Moines Register carried Carlson's story the same day.)

Vanessa Miller's Report.
Krislov took question after question, including some referencing campus controversies involving sexual assaults, diversity and the regents.

Law professor Nicholas Johnson asked a “hypothetical” question that seemed to refer to the regents’ controversial proposal to implement a performance-based funding model that could have pulled tens of millions of dollars from the UI had it been approved.

Former UI President Sally Mason, now retired, signed a letter supporting it, drawing the ire of some faculty members. Johnson asked Krislov how he would react if “asked by the Board of Regents to take a position on some policy or to sign off on some document or fire someone” against his best judgment and beliefs.

“You have a reputation for being a great compromiser, but sometimes you can’t compromise,” Johnson said. “Some things are worth losing an election for -- a job for.”

Krislov espoused his belief in finding common ground by trying to “understand why people want what they want.”

“I will tell you that it’s not worth it to me to have any job in America that requires me to sacrifice my morals and values,” he said to applause. “But I do not think it would need to get to that point.”
Vanessa Miller, "Higher Education: 'I Would Like to be Part of Your Team,' Finalist Says; Candidate for President of UI Tours Campus, Takes Public's Questions," The Gazette, August 28, 2015, p. A2.

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1 comment:

Nick said...

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