Saturday, November 18, 2006

UI President Search I

[Note: If you're new to this blog, and interested in the whole UI President Search story, these blog entries begin with Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search I," November 18, 2006. Wondering where the "UI Held Hostage" came from? Click here. For any given entry, links to the prior 10 will be found in the left-most column. Going directly to will take you to the latest. Each contains links to the full text of virtually all known media stories and commentary, including mine, since the last blog entry. Together they represent what The Chronicle of Higher Education has called "one of the most comprehensive analyses of the controversy." The last time there was an entry containing the summary of prior entries' commentary (with the heading "This Blog's Focus on Regents' Presidential Search") is Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search XIII -- Last Week," December 11, 2006. My early proposed solution to the conflict is provided in Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search VII: The Answer," November 26, 2006. And the fullest collection of basic documents related to the search is contained in Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search - Dec. 21-25," December 21, 2006 (and updated thereafter), at the bottom of that blog entry under "References".]

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This is "UI President Search I" (first uploaded November 18, 2006) because I suspect it's not the end of this story, and that there will be a "UI President Search II" and many more over the days, weeks -- and possibly months -- before the University of Iowa once again has something other than an "interim" president.

In fact, this blog entry has been modified a number of times November 18, 19, 20 and 21.

It provides (at the end of this blog entry, under the heading "Media Stories and Opinion") links to the full texts of what I believe to be the most complete collection of media and other reports and commentary available online regarding the events of November 17 and the days following.

There is this morning (Monday, November 20) a tiny bit of new news, however, provided by The Gazette (with a link to the full story below): "Regents President Michael Gartner . . . in a phone interview Sunday [yesterday, November 19] . . . said he was not yet thinking about the next presidential search and whether it would differ in any way from the previous search." (I told you it was "tiny," but thought I should pass it along.) Rather than comment, I'll bite my tongue and let you voice your own opinion in response to that statement.

And the second hour of "Talk of Iowa" (WSUI 910 AM and WOI 640 AM) this morning (Monday, November 20, 10:00-11:00 a.m.), available in streaming Real format from WSUI's "Talk of Iowa" site (click on "November 20"), contains some of the most thorough commentary from a number of the participants in the search process. Hopefully, someone will transcribe that program and make the text available online.

[Participants in studio or by phone included, among others, Jeff Schmidt, WSUI News Producer and host; Dean Borg, WSUI Senior Correspondent (who covers the Board of Regents), Robert Downer, member, Board of Regents; Katherine Tachau, vice-chairwoman, UI Presidential Search Committee; Mary Greer, President, UI Staff Council; Peter McElligott, President, University of Iowa Student Government; and Herb Strentz, founder, Iowa Freedom of Information Council.]

The Press-Citizen will have stories tomorrow (November 21) regarding Governor Vilsack's backing of the regents he appointed, and the UI campus groups movement toward votes of "no confidence" in the Regents.

Because I have posted from this entry links to the major newspaper stories and commentary from Friday, November 17 on, it has not been necessary to repeat here the quotes, facts and opnions they contain -- even though I share many of them.

Here are some opening reactions of mine to what appears to have happened.

First, an overly summarized statement of facts, to the extent they've been reported by the media. The Iowa Board of Regents have legal responsibility for selecting the president of the University of Iowa. For the past 10 months they, by way of their "search committee," have been evaluating what is reported to have been 150 possible contenders, with the aid of a search firm that has been paid $110,000 (and, what with related search expenses, may have cost the state over twice that). The 150 were apparently narrowed to seven, who were interviewed by the full, nine member Board of Regents (along with at least some members of the search committee who are not Regents) last Saturday (a week ago today) in Des Moines. Following that interview process, four were selected by the search committee and forwarded to the Regents. In a telephone meeting Friday (yesterday), rather than announcing either their final selection, or the names of the four finalists (who might then have been available for on-campus and other interviews), the Regents voted 6-2-1 to reject all four, abandon the search, and disband the search committee. (Given that they had only days before approved those four, it did have a bit of the ring of Senator John Kerry's oft-quoted explanation that, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”)

[Regent Robert Downer said during the November 20 "Talk of Iowa" radio program, cited above, that the change in position of the 6 regents occurred between a telephone meeting Tuesday noon, November 14, and a telephone meeting the evening of Wednesday, November 15. He said he was unaware of what happened to cause the switch during this time.]

1. What's going on here? The fact is, we don't know. There's lots of -- understandable -- emotionally driven anger. There's an equal amount of rumor and speculation. But there has been so much secrecy surrounding the process -- at least some of which was unnecessary, and all of which was of the Regents own making -- that there is probably no one who knows all the "who shot John?" step-by-step answers. (A wide range of speculation is contained in today's newspaper stories and commentary.) Until we do know -- from an investigation, burst of candor, leaks or confessions -- I think it best from a journalistic or legal perspective to stick with what's known and documented.

2. Complex health sciences leadership. One explanation that is documented is Regents President Michael Gartner's post-Friday meeting written statement asserting that the Regents' objections related to the need for "candidates who had more experience as leaders who oversaw complex health sciences operations." I don't quote it with the representation that it is an honest and accurate statement of what happened.
How could I know? (There is at least one report that three of the four finalists are provosts at institutions that do have "health sciences operations," and that Iowa's medical professionals involved in the search found the four finalists fully acceptable from this perspective.) The statement may have been dissembling on Gartner's part, an effort to cover up what's really going on. Or it may be true. But "which would be worse, in a way?"* [footnoted below]: That the Regents actually went through the process they did and then changed their minds for the reason he states, or that he flat out lied? For the rest of this blog entry I'm going to assume he told the truth.

3. Specifying qualifications up front. Whether the Regents should have focused on a potential university president's experience with oversight of "complex health science" operations is a matter I'll address in the next paragraph. For purposes of this paragraph, I'll take President Gartner's statement at face value and assume that it is an important qualification for a UI president. If that is the case, or is perceived by the six Regents as such, then I think it is fair to observe that it should have been made clear at the outset of the search process. It is impossible to know the hundreds of lives and thousands of hours of effort (not to mention the money) that have been involved in the search process over the last year by the Regents, search committee members, faculty and others -- on the assumption by all involved that the stated qualifications for the position were in fact the standards that would be applied in making the selection. Not the least of this adverse impact has fallen upon those 150, then 7, and finally 4, who believed they were to be at least potential candidates. They now find themselves with dashed hopes and the bitter realization that they have simply wasted the emotional energy, hours of valuable time away from other responsibilities -- and money -- that they reasonably believed were being rationally invested by them in pursuit of this position.

4. What are the necessary qualifications for UI's president? My take on educational administrative qualifications is different from what is suggested by Michael Gartner's statement.

Southwest Airlines CEO Colleen Barrett has said, "We tend to hire for attitude and train for skills -- —but don't get nervous, we don't hire pilots who can't fly a plane."

With all respect, from my perspective I think that's not a bad starting point in what we might look for in selecting a university president -- an individual with the necessary basics, capable of being a "quick study," who "plays well with others," and knows how to fly the plane.

The experience upon which I draw in the paragraphs that follow includes managing a multi-billion-dollar agency, being in effect a "board member" of another with perhaps 100 times that impact on the American economy, service on a number of boards, and once being identified by Newsweek as one of the top four candidates for university presidencies throughout the country (and, no, I neither applied, nor was considered, for the UI position). (For details see the long form bio.)

In the course of my career I have had to learn enough about nearly a dozen different industries to carry out my obligations responsibly and effectively. In my experience, and that of other CEOs with far more experience than I with whom I've visited over the years, that's been true for others as well.

The primary qualifications for the CEO's job are not years of experience in that agency or industry, or a mastery of every aspect of the business -- as a casual look at the bios of the Fortune 500 CEOs will attest. In fact, what's often needed is precisely the opposite: someone who doesn't think he or she knows all the answers; someone who will ask the naive questions, and then realize that because there is a lot they need to learn they best listen very carefully to the answers; someone who has a "fresh approach" and is able to "think outside the box."

What is most needed is Southwest's "attitude": a "quick study" with above average intelligence, yes, but not so far above average that arrogance impedes both positive inter-personal relations with, and respect for, everyone in the shop, and a willingness to put in the hours necessary with those individuals to truly appreciate what the institution does and why.

Similarly, since the Sixth Century, B.C., the most effective leaders have followed Lao Tsu's advice (in Tao Te Ching): put ego on hold, encourage genuine stakeholder participation and direction, such that, to the extent the leader's initial ideas are embodied in policy and action, "The people say, 'See, we did it ourselves.'"** (Sadly, this has been one bit of ancient wisdom the Regents have all too often failed to heed.)

There is both a substantive and a superficial element in "past experience."

Superficially, the staff of large organizations often like to see their CEO chosen from "one of their own," whether a scholar as head of an educational institution or a Foreign Service officer as an ambassador. It increases the comfort level of those whose professional and personal lives could be significantly affected by this new stranger chosen to lead them. This is not a trivial factor, but it doesn't go to, and is certainly no guarantee of, even competence, let alone outstanding leadership.

Clearly among David Skorton's charm and many intellectual and other strengths, his ability to function as a member of the faculties of medicine, engineering and computer science, while playing saxophone and flute, hosting a radio program about jazz, and demonstrating a capacity to have been a professional stand-up comic, helped his rapport with all.

But to insist that candidates as university president
have had experience as "leaders who oversaw complex health sciences operations," along with, presumably, comparable amounts of experience overseeing every other aspect of something as wide-ranging as the programs of the University of Iowa is (1) to hope for someone who never was and never will be, and, fortunately, is also (2) unnecessary, and (3) undesirable.

It is not the president's job (nor the Regents, if I may say so) to micromanage every program and function of the University of Iowa. (Nor could he or she do it if it were.) They need enough of a management information reporting system in place to tell them what they need to know about what's going on and to head off disasters, but their primary job is to get the best qualified people they can find to do the jobs that need to be done, enable them to work together cooperatively when necessary, and then leave them alone.

The UI has recently announceded an expansion of its offering of foreign languages. In this global age it would be a plus for a university's president to be able, like the former Pope, to speak 15 languages. But since he or she is unlikely to find it necessary to teach those classes, the even bigger plus would be a president who initiates the processes, and maintains an environment, in which qualified foreign language professors are found, respected, encouraged, supported -- and retained.

Some leaders want to be surrounded with supporting staff and administrators who are demonstrably less able than themselves. Others want "the best and the brightest." It is the latter who are both most effective in their day-to-day accomplishments and subsequently the most favorably regarded with the hindsight of history.

Of course we want a highly qualified administrator of our health sciences complex, just as, if we are going to have a football program, it is useful to have one of the nation's most highly regarded (and paid) college football coaches.

But that doesn't mean we need, or want, a university president who can micromanage one of the nation's largest and most prestigiousus medical colleges and hospitals, any more than we need or want a president qualified to, and who does, tell the football coach what plays to call on Saturday afternoon.

What we do need is a president who is relaxed and comfortable working with a health sciences administrator, football coach, and others who are demonstrably more qualified to do their jobs than the president is to do their jobs, and to whom he or she can responsibly delegate that authority with confidence.

In conclusion, (1) the Regents may have had acceptable reasons for their rather unusual behavior during this UI presidential search. We cannot know, because they haven't revealed them. All they've told us is that the four finalists (whom the search committee, including some regents, had earlier found sufficiently acceptable to recommend) were, days later, now unacceptable because the Regents needed
"candidates who had more experience as leaders who oversaw complex health sciences operations."
(2) If it is true that at least three of the four had such experience, and that the medical professionals on the search committee found their experience adequate in this regard, the credibility of that explanation suffers considerably. Of course, it may be that, during the week following the selection of the four finalists, the Regents were for the first time informed of either (a) something about all four, or (b) something regarding "complex health sciences operations," that would cause them, rationally and responsibly, to reject the finalists.
(3) However, unless that was the case, the Regents should have made abundantly clear in the job description from the beginning of the search process, for the search committee members and applicants alike, the primary importance of "leaders who oversaw complex health sciences operations."
(4) Finally, for the reasons discussed more fully in paragraph 4, above, unless the Regents know something about the UI president's job, and the UI's "complex health sciences operations" that is not immediately obvious to students of management (which, of course, they may), their disproportionately heavy emphasis on this factor appears to this writer to be both unnecessary and unwise.

There will be a lot more to be reported -- and commented upon -- as this saga continues to unfold.
* The footnote for "Which would be worse, in a way?" The line was used by UC Berkeley professor Michael Rogan in the CBS "60 Minutes" segment called "Ronald Reagan the Movie," December 15, 1985 (also the title of Professor Rogan's paper and presentation). President Reagan had referred in speeches to an event from a fictional film as if it really had occurred. The reporter asked Professor Rogan whether he thought the President knew he was misrepresenting history or whether Reagan thought the event actually had occurred. Rogan paused, then responded, before addressing the question, "Which would be worse, in a way?"

** There are many translations of, and sources for, "The Book of Tao." The quoted passage is from chapter 17. Here is one of many sources that translates it,

"The best leaders value their words, and use them sparingly.
When she has accomplished her task,
the people say, 'Amazing:
we did it, all by ourselves!'"
Media stories and opinion (listed A-Z by newspaper name):

Margaret Poe, "Buzz Swirls About Regent Confab," Daily Iowan, November 17, 2006

Danny Valentine, "Outraged UI Community to Pursue 'No-Confidence' Vote in Regents," Daily Iowan Online, November 17, 2006

Erin Jordan and Lynn Campbell, "U of I president search starts over; Committee members call regents' decision a 'betrayal,'" Des Moines Register, November 18, 2006

Erin Jordan, "Expert: Regents Met Unlawfully; Secret sessions may taint new president search, says open records advocate," Des Moines Register, November 19, 2006

Linda Alexander, "It's time to consider the removal of a regent or 2," The Gazette, November 18, 2006

"Did regents violate open-meeting rule? Senator disapproves of process, but board denies breaking law," The Gazette, November 20, 2006

Diane Heldt, "Regents call off UI chief search; Anger sweeps campus as hopefuls deemed unsuitable," The Gazette, November 18, 2006

Editorial, "Regents Need to Say Goodbye to President," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 18, 2006

Rob Daniel, "Legislators: Search Should be More Open,"
Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 18, 2006

Brian Morelli, "Regents' move is 'unbelievable'; Presidential search to start over,"
Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 18, 2006

Brian Morelli, "Board Didn't Adjourn for a Week," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 18, 2006

Darwin Danielson, "Regents dismiss candidates for U-of-I president,"
Radio Iowa, November 17, 2006

WSUI, "Talk of Iowa," November 20, 2006

Others' Blog comments (listed chronologically):

J.D. Mendenhall, "How to Choose Next UI Prez,"
November 17, 2006

State29, "No New Pope at the University of Iowa," November 17, 2006

State29, "The Press-Citizen Wants Michael Gartner Fired,"
November 18, 2006

TaxProf, "University of Iowa Regents Suspend Search for New President, Disband Search Committee After Rejecting Its Four Candidates," November 19, 2006

Maria Houser Conzemius (Open Country), "Regents Continue to Alienate Best & Brightest," November 19, 2006

State29, "No Confidence: The End of Vilsack's Cultural Revolution?" November 20, 2006

The Yin Blog, "Nick Johnson on the Failed UI Presidential Search," November 20, 2006

K. L. Snow (Diary of a Political Madman), "The U of I Isn't Getting a New President Anytime Soon,"
November 20, 2006

Other related material:

Regents, "Regents Meet on University of Iowa Presidential Search,"
News Release, November 17, 2006

Nicholas Johnson, "Pricey Presidents' Added Cost," The Daily Iowan, March 7, 2006

Nicholas Johnson, "Rethinking Higher Education," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 13, 2006

Nicholas Johnson, "UI Football Promoting Gambling?" FromDC2Iowa, September 16, 2006

Nicholas Johnson, "Athletics and Academics,"
FromDC2Iowa, September 30, 2006

Nicholas Johnson, "More College Football Conflicts & Concerns," FromDC2Iowa, October 7, 2006

Nicholas Johnson, "Swimming Upstream: Managing Athletics," FromDC2Iowa, November 3, 2006

Nicholas Johnson, "Rethinking Higher Education," FromDC2Iowa, November 13, 2006

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Grant and gift money flows into the UI coffers at rate of about $1 million per day and the president plays a critical role in seeing that the rate stays the same or increases. The president is the key representative of the UI to the legislature. The president also recruits and hires administrators and plays an important role in improving the caliber of the faculty.

The president does not does not have time to devote to administrative detail.