Search begins for UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor

Many openings; few qualified candidates

jstancill@newsobserver.comOctober 8, 2012 

— The hunt for the next UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor began in earnest Monday, with a 21-member committee hiring a search consultant and taking a vow of confidentiality about the process.

The committee voted unanimously to hire Bill Funk, a Dallas-based consultant who is considered something of a guru among national higher education search firms.

UNC-CH officials said they would negotiate a fee with Funk, who initially quoted a cost estimate of $120,000, not including travel and other expenses.

Funk told the committee that UNC-CH, with its new top-10 rank in research funding and its “residual good will,” is well-positioned to attract strong candidates. But he cautioned that competition is keen this year. Attrition among higher education leaders is epidemic, he said. Among universities looking for presidents are Yale, Princeton, Carnegie Mellon, California-Berkeley, Wisconsin, Georgia, Florida and Penn State.

“The challenge we face all the time is that there are just not enough good candidates,” said Funk, who was among three search consultants competing for UNC-CH’s business on Monday.

Funk has conducted more than 350 such searches and is responsible for recruiting some 70 current sitting university presidents, including UNC President Tom Ross and UNC-CH Chancellor Holden Thorp, who announced last month that he would step down in June to return to the faculty.

The pool is shallow, though, Funk said, while the average age of sitting presidents is 63. Furthermore, half of provosts — those in the second-in-command jobs — said in a survey that they don’t aspire to a college presidency. “I think they’ve seen that job and don’t want it,” Funk said.

It will be Funk’s job to root out the most talented candidates who are the right fit for UNC-CH. His firm’s proposal said: “Getting the best people to declare their candidacy — and keeping them in the search — may be the greatest contribution we can make. The best candidates will not want to feel that they are in competition, will be very sensitive to public disclosure of their candidacies, and will require constant ‘hand holding’ throughout the process.”

The search committee, made up of trustees, faculty, students, staff and alumni, also heard from Ross, the UNC system president, who told the group that the search is the most important task many of them will ever undertake for the university. He said it is critical, especially now, to find the best candidate possible to lead a campus that has been bruised by a series of scandals related to athletics in the past two years.

Several investigations are under way regarding misconduct by former university employees and academic fraud involving athletes. Though Thorp, 48, was widely praised by faculty, staff and students, dealing with the trouble took a toll. He said it was best for him and the university if he stepped aside.

Ross praised Thorp and said the next leader also has to have “unwavering integrity,” as well as vision, transparency, collaboration, decisiveness and a strong commitment to liberal arts education.

“I think you need a chancellor with courage who will stand up for what is right,” Ross said.

He said the next leader must appreciate the value of intercollegiate athletics, “who understands the need to have the appropriate balance between academics and athletics, with academics always being the priority.”

Funk said the athletic problems that have plagued Chapel Hill could happen anywhere and wouldn’t detract from the pool of candidates or the quality of candidates.

But another consultant, Martin Baker of Baker and Associates, was a little more blunt. “People are going to ask tough questions about what’s happening at Carolina today,” he said, adding that candidates would want to know “what is the culture and is it going in the right direction?”

Much of the conversation Monday centered on maintaining secrecy when it comes to candidates. The committee members signed confidentiality agreements and talked about how they would avoid discussions with colleagues and friends; some joked about not whispering search secrets to their spouses.

“I think it’s critically important that we maintain confidentiality,” said Wade Hargrove, chairman of the Board of Trustees and the search committee. “If we fail to do so, we deny ourselves some of the most qualified candidates.”

Ross wants the committee to deliver three names for him to consider. He will then choose one to recommend to the UNC Board of Governors, which will elect the new chancellor sometime in the spring.

In the coming weeks, the search committee will set up a series of forums so that students, faculty, staff, alumni and community members can weigh in on the qualities they’d like to see in the next leader.

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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