From the Rutgers Targum 2/8/02


By John Gillis

People familiar with the 1990 search that produced Francis L. Lawrence as the
president of Rutgers have long been troubled by its flawed nature. Now is time to
review what went wrong so that the flaws of 1990 will not be repeated. This time
around, it is essential that there be nothing second-rate or secretive about the
search process. We need a president who can put Rutgers back on track to
becoming the premier public University in the eastern United States.
The 1990 search proceeded in two phases. A body of 20 faculty, deans, students
and alumni was chosen by the Board of Governors and charged with seeking
qualified candidates and reviewing their applications. Nominations were requested
from all interested parties, but the search itself was conducted in great secrecy.
Meetings with candidates were managed in such a way that the full search
committee never met Francis Lawrence.
Impressions of him had to be gotten second hand, a very questionable procedure.
Another irregularity occurred when the Board of Governors hired a headhunting to
assist the search committee, a highly unusual practice that suggests that the
organization cannot manage its own most important business. And there is always
the chance for potential conflict of interest if the hunting firm should push for a
particular candidate on its own roster of clients.
In the end, the search committee was particularly impressed with three people,
adding Lawrence as a fourth, even though many on the committee ranked him below
his competitors. The four names were forwarded to the Board of Governors
Selection Committee that was constituted of 10 trustees and governors, carefully
composed to avoid the strictures of the Open Public Meetings Act. Meeting with
candidates in secret, it made the final decision. The rest is history.
What are the lessons that can be drawn from this search? In a decision of this
importance, enormous care must be taken to be sure that all interests of the
academic community are represented on the search committee. Nominations for
search committee positions must come from constituted faculty and student
representative bodies. The search committee must agree at the outset to only
consider candidates with genuinely distinguished qualifications. At all leading
universities, these include a superior academic record, the "ability" to lead rather
than merely manage, and a record of exceptional public service. Nothing less will do.
Using these criteria, the search committee must then solicit nominations from all
sectors of the University community.
It will seek out and encourage to apply the very best of those nominated.
Following the best practice of great public and private universities, it will aim high and spread
its net wide for the best possible results.
The search must be conducted with as much openness as possible, for it is as
important that the candidates get to know Rutgers as it is for Rutgers to get to know
them. This is the way faculty and decanal searches are always conducted. Searches
for presidents should be no different. The whole search committee will interview all
candidates. After painstaking and thoughtful deliberation, it will then present a short
list to the Board of Governors.
There should be no rush to judgment. If no outstanding candidates turn up in the first
round, the process will be continued until it meets its stated goal of installing a
person of distinguished background, with the leadership capacity befitting a great
public institution.
What can we as individual faculty and students do? We can demand that our
representative bodies have an appropriate and active role in the selection of the
search committee. When solicited for our nominations, we can respond with
imagination and energy, giving the search committee the best and fullest advice
possible. We can monitor the search process, keeping it as open as possible by
reminding all those involved of their responsibility to the community at large. We can
demand that the committee and the Board produce a president worthy of this great
University, and settle for nothing less. We can welcome the next president as a
respected colleague, expecting in return the same kind of respect and cooperation.
As a faculty member of 31 years standing, I offer these ideas in the unflagging faith
that, with the right leadership, Rutgers can reach its potential as the best public
University on the east coast and one of the great institutions of higher education in
America. I hope you will join me in this faith and support the effort to make this
search a success.
John Gillis is a professor of history. He is also a University Senator.

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