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After Yearlong Search, UW Job Still Unfilled It’s Increasingly Difficult To Hire University Presidents

On the surface, the hiring of a new president at the University of Washington would seem uncomplicated.

The job is prestigious. The pay is $150,000 a year or more, and there are lots of benefits.

But after a year of looking, UW officials have come up empty in trying to replace William Gerberding, who has presided over the Seattle campus for 16 years.

Experts say the trouble isn’t surprising. Around the country, it is increasingly difficult to recruit and hire presidents at large universities.

The job is so demanding and requires so many skills that relatively few candidates are qualified or willing to take the job, they say.

“There are not all that many people who want to be a university president,” said Harvard University Professor David Riesman, who cowrote a book on the problem of recruiting a new president.

Riesman said UW is one of the most prestigious public research institutions in the country, and Seattle is a great place to live and work.

By those standards, the university should have no problem finding a president, Riesman said.

This month, regents announced their yearlong search has been unsuccessful, and they probably will have to name an interim president when Gerberding leaves June 30.

Three finalists were identified in the search, but none was hired.

The regents refused to disclose the names of their finalists. Reports indicated one finalist was Graham Spanier, the former chancellor of the University of Nebraska who recently agreed to become president of Pennsylvania State University.

Penn State, with 69,000 students on 22 campuses, spent 10 months searching for a replacement for Dr. Joab Thomas, said Vicki Fong, a university spokeswoman.

“The demands of the job are certainly different than they were 15 years ago,” said Fong.

Spokane’s Mari Clack, a UW regent, said she is not fazed by the problem of filling Gerberding’s position. “There’s no denying it’s a tough job,” she said, and finding the right person wasn’t expected to be easy.

“You have to be politically savvy or you are not going to last very long,” she said. “To be really successful, you have to like what you are doing.”

Clack declined to discuss why no finalist was hired, other than to say it is difficult to find a good match.

“Either it didn’t work for them or it didn’t work for us,” she said.

Clack, who recently completed a term as president of the board of regents, said a university president must have a vision for the institution’s role in a fast-changing, hightech society.

“We have to be global. We have to expand beyond our horizons,” Clack said.

The president cannot be a dictator, but instead must be skilled at building consensus for the university’s mission among various constituents such as faculty, students, lawmakers, the business community and the taxpaying public.

Behind all of this is the nuts and bolts of keeping the place running. It takes lots of money. The UW has a $1.3 billion annual budget, 33,700 students and 3,500 teachers. Gerberding earns $173,000 a year.

This is not an 8-to-5 job. A university president is consumed by its demands.

By day, the president must be able to articulate the mission of higher education to lawmakers and the public, and then schmooze wealthy donors at fancy receptions at night.

As state tax support declines, the university is forced to rely increasingly on grants, donations and contracts. The UW gets more federal money than any other public university in the country. One reason is the extensive medical research being conducted there.

Burnout occurs. At Harvard, President Neil Rudenstine recently took a three-month sabbatical to overcome job stress.

Boston College last year suspended its search for a new president, but trustees there have an even smaller group of potential candidates. The president must be a Jesuit.

The president of the University of Texas at Arlington quit abruptly because he was fed up with attacks on his reputation.

In this pressure-packed environment, some universities are doing well.

The University of Oregon appears to be having a honeymoon with its new president, Dave Frohnmayer, the former state attorney general.

When it comes to finding a new president, most universities are looking for someone who has presidential experience.

The University of Illinois, with three separate campuses, recently promoted one of its chancellors to president.

“These people are not looking for work,” said Lex Tate, spokeswoman for UI. “Work is looking for them. Institutions are looking for them.”

Harvard’s Riesman said selection

committees frequently are forced to operate in secret so they can woo sitting presidents from other, possibly smaller universities.

Candidates considering a move to UW wouldn’t want that information made public because that would make them appear disloyal, and if they aren’t chosen, they would have trouble continuing in their jobs.

At UW, the Seattle Times sued regents under the state’s open records law for names of the finalists. A judge ruled in favor of the regents, who kept the names confidential, Clack said.

The lawsuit underscores the controversy and pressure faced by those who are making the selection.

Eastern Washington University President Mark Drummond said he sympathizes with UW officials.

The Legislature has cut university budgets for five years. The stature of higher education in the state is slipping, he said.

Because of that, Drummond said any candidate is going to be hesitant about taking the UW job.

“It’s a big decision for somebody to get into something like that when it could mean the end of their career,” Drummond said.

“The state of Washington is getting a reputation as not a place to come if you want a career in higher education.”

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