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Members of the presidential search committee meet for the first time at the Center for Innovation on the University of North Dakota campus Wednesday, July 24, 2019. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald.

UND presidential succession planning has its positives, issues, scholar says

GRAND FORKS — As the University of North Dakota Presidential Search Committee continues to mull who will become the next leader of the state’s flagship university, many in North Dakota want internal candidates to be considered for the position.

State Board of Higher Education member Dan Traynor has brought up the idea of succession planning multiple times in recent months.

Traynor, who recently was nominated to become a federal judge and may have to resign from his position, said during a May board meeting that the board and system chancellor should begin to consider presidential succession plans and how vacancies are filled in the future. That, he says, should help reduce costs to taxpayers, since well-developed succession plans could reduce the number of out-of-state search firms being used to find presidential candidates.

“We need to have a better plan, a more cost-efficient plan and perhaps not always rely on out-of-state headhunting firms,” Traynor said during the May meeting.

Succession planning has also been a topic of conversation during various listening sessions held statewide by the search committee.

Succession planning has worked in the past, prior to out-of-state search firms coming into popularity across the country. Former UND President Tom Clifford, a president hailed as among the best presidents ever at UND and within the state system, attended UND as a student and worked his way through the ranks at the university.

In more recent times, Lake Region State College President Doug Darling served as vice president of instructional services at the college before becoming president. President John Richman was vice president of academic and student affairs at the North Dakota State College of Science before taking the helm at the school. Former Mayville State President Gary Hagen also served as vice president of academic affairs at MSU prior to becoming the leader of the institution.

But while looking internally seems to be a more financially prudent and efficient process, national scholars say there could be reason for pause.

Judith Wilde, chief operating officer and professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Virginia, is among a handful of people in the nation who study higher-education presidential search processes.

While Wilde does not have specific research on internal candidates becoming presidents of institutions, she said it seems the situation does not happen too often today.

“My fear about choosing the new president from internal candidates only is that you may well tend to people who either want to change dramatically what the past president did or who want to stay the same,” she said.

Wilde points out that another issue with selecting internal candidates comes with planning for an interim president: Who would become interim president in this scenario? Would there be multiple options?

UND’s interim president, Joshua Wynne, is not eligible to become permanent president of the institution unless he resigns from the interim presidency, per an agreement made when Wynne first took the position.

Additionally, Wilde said people must consider the overall job of the president and the jobs of others within the university. Provosts, typically viewed as the No. 2 position at a university, are more often now viewed as the academic leader of campus. Provosts often have less experience dealing with the wealth of issues with which a president must be familiar, Wilde said.

It is slowly becoming more common now for deans to become presidents of institutions, Wilde said.

“It seems like a huge leap until you start thinking about the job description,” Wilde said. “The president has to be out in the community at large, including the businesses and getting to know the major donors. They have to be down talking with students periodically. They have to be available to give keynotes and to introduce people at various events. It’s a really, really broad description.”

Deans deal with similar circumstances inside their respective colleges, she said.

“Presidents have to deal with budgets, internal politics, external politics, donors and so on. We are seeing now that these are the same things with which deans are dealing,” she said. “And, as the percentage of funding that state colleges/universities receive from the state continues to dwindle, deans are even having to court donors to help fill in gap between needed funds and state funding. So, deans are becoming more viable as presidential candidates.”

While a board can do the search itself to save money, Wilde said there are other ways to conduct the search to yield a variety of candidates.

“It certainly would be cheaper if the board member is thinking about the cost of a search firm,” she said. “However, by doing a search by itself, with a local search firm, the search can still be quite inexpensive but yield a strong and varied set of candidates from different geographies and different backgrounds.”

Some search firms will charge a lower price if an internal candidate is identified, but Wilde said, for the most part, those have been for lower-level searches, rather than presidents. Searches often were done by state boards themselves 20 years ago, with many successful presidents coming internally from campuses. But times have changed.

As the process goes on, Wilde said the search committee should be having in-depth conversations about what people truly want in the next president. It has to go beyond just listening sessions.

“Many people consider that to be enough, but it’s really not enough to learn what the faculty and the staff and the students feel needs to change and or stay the same,” she said.

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