Inside the Search

Inside the Search

By Tom Griscom

As the selection process for a University of Tennessee system president commenced, the only thing missing was the booming voice that echoes throughout Neyland Stadium on Saturdays in the fall.

But instead of “It’s football time in Tennessee,” the refrain would have been: “It’s presidential search time once again at Tennessee.”

For in the search process, there was playe and fan anticipation. Some sides had been selected in advance. As the plays developed, audibles were called and there was a little coaching throughout. Team colors were displayed via neckties.

This all too familiar event has occurred four times over the last 11 years. It only seems more frequent. This time, however, the rallying cry was that it would be different. There were lessons that should have been learned, or so one hoped.

One candidate was asked whether he was a runner or a passer. For this job, you need to be both. There are times when you put your head down and charge full-steam ahead. But there also are situations when you go for the longer yardage gain. You have to know which play to call, who to have on the field, and how to manage the clock.

The public refrain from Mountain City to Memphis was “Please, get it right.” Governor Phil Bredesen made that point clear when he called for a president who could lead and implement the Complete College Act that changed the expectations for higher education in Tennessee.

After a few miscues at the turn of the decade, transparency became the operative word. The 2004 candidates appeared in televised live forums on each campus, answering questions and trying to remove any specter of a crevice left unexplored.
UT set the standard for open presidential searches, leaving only the state of Florida with a higher standard for public knowledge.
During the last session of the Tennessee General Assembly, there was a passing interest in adjusting the presidential search process, but UT officials demurred. Transparency is not only for the benefit of the media, although most of the credit or blame for the presidential search process is placed at the media doorstep. Faculty, staff, students, and a few alums took advantage of the access to the candidates, as well.
It would be interesting to document whether the transparency of the presidential search at the University of Tennessee diminished the pool of candidates. There is anecdotal evidence but not necessarily empirical data.

In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, writer Alexandra Tilsley posed this premise: “Too much sunshine can complicate presidential searches.”

Tom Griscom“As states face tremendous budget problems, regulation-minded lawmakers and taxpayers are increasingly concerned about who’s running public institutions,” she wrote. “Some universities, limited by strict public-records, or ‘sunshine,’ laws, have tried to perfect the art of the open search. But what’s best for the public isn’t always best for presidential candidates and governing boards, and eventually one of those groups might have to give some ground.”

I have no doubt that some qualified people probably did not apply out of concern about the glare of the public light. The UT search consultants confirmed that point. But more in-depth research might verify whether other issues, such as tight budgets, influenced some to not step up and step out.

Another limiting factor in the candidate pool may have been the statement in the job posting that ties to Tennessee and even the University of Tennessee were useful—not essential, but useful. On the review form used to evaluate the candidates, the first two questions zeroed in on those points. Did that limit the pool? No one knows for sure, but a decent assumption would be a qualified yes.

For this search, the applicant pool numbered 71. Five emerged to be considered for the choice for quarterback, head coach, or possibly head cheerleader—most likely all three roles.
The limited diversity in the final five raised this question: “What is your definition of diversity?”

One response was inclusion based upon race, gender, and income, and urban and rural environment. The 71-person field reflected those five terms, but quickly dissolved with every cut in numbers.

From the recent graduate to the night security guard to the individual who worked at a fast-food outlet, a measure of diversity was met. One student remarked,  “The [hamburger] applicant might be a good choice if you have ever had the food in the UC at Knoxville.”

The 71 applicants included members of the faculty and staff, a handful of business professionals, a couple of former university leaders, and at least one currently in place at a regional university. The requirements were more refined and defined, with credit going to some of the UT presidents who served over the 11-year period and implemented ­structural changes.

Today there is less confusion as to who leads the main campus in Knoxville and its athletic programs—it is the Knoxville chancellor. There also is a clearer understanding that when it comes to blending the resources of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory with UT, the president assumes that mantle. “There is clarity this time around,” one of the search consultants remarked.

The clarity extends outside the borders of the Knoxville campus to the other institutions in the UT orbit—Chattanooga, Martin, and the Health Science Center—each with a distinct mission and identity. More than once during the interview sessions and in solicited comments from outside the “higher education fraternity” was heard, “Do you have knowledge that there are campuses outside of Knoxville that are part of UT?”
With the new president selected, these are suggested measures for you, an alumnus or friend of the University of Tennessee, to use to measure the new system leader:

  • Will he speak up for higher education in Tennessee, being the voice in small meetings, on the various campuses, with the Board of Regents and THEC, the governor and the legislature?
  • Will he find ways to link the Complete College Act with the Race to the Top so there is seamless educational excellence from pre-K through college, preparing Tennessee students to compete with the best in the nation?
  • Will the budgets be realistic in achieving the missions of the University of Tennessee and all of its distinctive campuses, and where shortfalls exist, are there plans to fill the gaps?
  • There are those intangibles that have tripped up your predecessors. Are your feet firmly on the ground; do you have a core set of values and visions; do you listen well; and do you lead by example?

I observed from an inside seat, having exited the “press box” several months earlier. There was a lot learned that even in a transparent system is not seen or reported. I thought we scrubbed the candidates well. We should, because the candidates are paraded in full view.
But maybe the tough financial times resulted in fewer journalists—print or broadcast—in the room for the interviews or scouring the Internet for more information. Transparency requires diligence, and that was served only by a small handful of journalists.

Time will tell whether the presidential selection process, with all of its warts and blemishes, worked. If so, that alone may mean the next time around, the pool will be larger because of the value that others place on being president of the University of Tennessee.