NCCU search for chancellor will be secret

Staff WriterFebruary 28, 2007 

— The search for N.C. Central University's next chancellor will be cloaked in the sort of secrecy usually reserved for clandestine meetings between spies.

The 14-member committee charged with finding a replacement for departing Chancellor James H. Ammons was sworn to silence this week, the importance of confidentiality stamped into its members with all the subtlety of a foghorn. Members even signed a confidentiality agreement, as will any of their personal assistants privy to their phone calls or with access to e-mail accounts. To review resumes, committee members will key unique passwords into a secure Web site. Search consultants will communicate partly in code; rather than names, they'll refer, for example, to "Candidate A."

These marching orders came courtesy of UNC system President Erskine Bowles and officials from Heidrick & Struggles, a headhunter firm hired to assist in the search. The plea for discretion is nothing new. Within the UNC system and around the country, university leaders insist that those conducting the search not let anything slip.

The consequences, they are routinely warned, can be disastrous. Sitting university presidents or candidates in other high-profile posts can be scared off if they think their identities may be revealed during the process, officials say.

"We're playing with people's lives here," said Veronica Biggins, the consultant with Heidrick & Struggles. "Submitting a person's information out to the public without their consent can cave a search."

The committee's first priority is to figure out what it wants in its next chancellor. A series of forums will be held next week to gather input. Eventually, an official statement will be written explaining the job.

In giving the committee its official charge, Bowles did offer a few hints as to his vision for NCCU. The next chancellor should build on current momentum by expanding the BRITE program, the university's well-regarded biotechnology initiative, he said. In addition, the new leader will push for more advanced degree programs and additional resources for areas of strength such as the law, business and nursing programs, he said.

And the next chancellor will have to deftly manage rapid growth on the UNC system's fastest-growing campus while making sure relations with the Durham community remain strong, Bowles said. Enrollment, now about 8,600, has grown 50 percent since Ammons arrived in 2001.

"Don't even think of bringing me someone who isn't committed to being a leader in this community," Bowles said.

Perhaps most important, the new chancellor will have to be adept at fundraising, he said. As state support continues to diminish as an overall percentage of operating budgets at public universities, the need for private dollars has grown more critical.

"College presidents, their number one role now is to be out in the community, raising money," said Biggins, the search consultant. "That is key."

Bowles wants a new chancellor in place by fall.

Staff writer Eric Ferreri can be reached at 956-2415 or eferreri@newsobserver.com.

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