Big dollars, why?

November 19, 2010 

In the end, the choice to be the next president of the University of North Carolina system was just down the road a piece, in Davidson. And Tom Ross was well-known all over North Carolina before he'd taken the helm of his alma mater, Davidson College. He had been a Superior Court judge, head of the Administrative Office of the Courts and had run the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.

So why did it take over $140,000 and a Dallas-based search firm to find him?

It's a valid question for people to ask, and for members of the UNC system's Board of Governors to be asking themselves. The use of search firms seems to be an outgrowth of some sort of corporate model that board members, many of whom are private business people, want to impose.

The money to fund searches comes from a pot of private funds - interest on unrestricted gifts given to universities in the system over a period of time. But just because taxpayers aren't dipping directly into their pockets doesn't mean the system or its member institutions should exercise their discretion in this way.

It seems this is a "custom" that is an instinctive response to a job opening atop the management ladder. This, despite the fact that the state has a host of private and public institutions, with many people who have administrative experience themselves and who have contacts at universities around the country.

In addition to what seems to be an unjustified lack of interest in using resources close to home, the Board of Governors had another problem. Some 55 people on various committees were involved in this presidential search. That's ridiculous. Does it reflect a feeling by some board members that they wanted a piece of the action when it came to making this decision, or is it a case of leaders not wanting to offend fellow board members?

This process has become cumbersome and expensive when it doesn't have to be. The good conclusion of choosing Ross could have happened without it.

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