The University of Minnesota is moving fast in its search for its next president. Some worry it might be too fast.
The U's search committee is slated to start sifting through applications this week — less than two months after the U launched the search and just weeks after a formal call for applications went out.
University officials say a brisk pace means the U can beat the annual presidential hiring season rush and draw high-caliber applicants reluctant to enter a protracted search. The university stuck with its 12-to-16-week timeline even after recently parting ways with its search firm, which had promised regents to wrap up the search in December, according to correspondence obtained by the Star Tribune. The U's new consultants, AGB Search, say the time frame they inherited is ambitious but doable.
"It's a very aggressive timeline for a presidential search," said Rod McDavis, a managing principal at AGB. Still, "The response has been very positive. The University of Minnesota has a strong name and brand across the country."
But some on the faculty and others have voiced concern that the timeline might not allow enough time to recruit candidates who are not actively job-hunting — or to thoroughly vet those who apply.
Some question if the U governing board is rushing to complete the search before the January start of the state legislative session, when legislators will fill four regent seats up for grabs.
Amid heightened competition for seasoned leaders, higher education experts say presidential searches nationwide have been getting shorter, with fewer lasting the six months the U took to hire President Eric Kaler in 2010.
U officials stress they will slow down if their candidate roster underwhelms.
Kaler announced July 13 that he would step down at the end of June 2019. But the university, which chose to forgo a formal request for proposals from search consultants, had already reached out to firms by mid-June and firmed up plans to work with Storbeck/Pimentel & Associates in the days after Kaler's announcement.
When some regents found out after the fact that Storbeck handled a recent Minnesota State Colleges and Universities search in which trustees rejected all finalists, the U circled back to ask the firm for a list of their prior Minnesota jobs.
David McMillan, the board chair, said Kaler made the final decision to step down the week of his announcement. But he had signaled to regents he was considering it earlier, and the board wanted to be prepared.
Storbeck and the U agreed on a quick turnaround. In an August meeting with regents, firm partner Alberto Pimentel noted a handful of other universities, including Michigan State, were kicking off presidential searches.
"Moving the process along swiftly will play to your benefit," Pimentel said.
Abdul Omari, a regent who chairs the university's search committee, said social media and a more connected academia are speeding up searches: They make it easier to vet applicants and also heighten concerns that word of candidacies might leak out during a lengthy search process.
"You don't sacrifice quality by moving at a brisker pace," said McMillan.
An earlier deadline for applications also gives the U a chance to size up the applicant pool and redouble recruitment efforts if needed. The U's presidential profile — a detailed advertisement for the position posted Oct. 4 — urged contenders to apply by Oct. 29, though it said later applications could be considered.
At that point, Pimentel had been recruiting candidates for weeks, juggling calls with prospects and September campus forums to gather feedback on the ideal candidate.
McMillan said it might be helpful for legislators to know who will succeed Kaler as they tackle the U's budget request this spring.
But he said the legislative session and the regents election were not "a key driver" in setting the timeline.
The U fired Storbeck after the firm took on the Michigan State search, as well.
In e-mails, an apologetic Pimentel noted that the school is taking a year to find its next president, and the searches would not overlap. The U was not convinced.
McDavis, the AGB consultant, said his firm typically completes searches in five to six months and allows six to eight weeks to recruit candidates. At the U, it got three weeks.
"We've been working around the clock every day to accommodate the timeline we inherited," he said, adding he is "cautiously optimistic" about staying on schedule.
Several AGB searches have drawn controversy this year.
Boise State University rejected all finalists in its presidential search and parted ways with the firm after criticism it rushed the process. Suffolk University in Boston hired its interim president instead of two finalists in its search, triggering an investigation into misconduct allegations on the governing board. And at the University of Guam, the firm faced an outcry over a finalist's troubled work history.
McDavis said these searches represent a small fraction of more than 80 his firm handled in the past year. He said AGB provided thorough information to search committees but could not control disagreements over finalists.
U officials declined to say how many applications they have received so far, but they stressed the search is going well. "I don't think we're moving too fast," said Omari. "We're moving at an appropriate pace."
Presidential searches at universities have sped up over the years, says Judith Wilde, a professor at George Mason University who has studied such recruitment. Search consultants push for shorter timelines, which boost their bottom line, Wilde says.
She cautions it takes time to vet candidates thoroughly. When searches fail, it's often because key information about finalists did not surface in time.
But Michael Poliakoff at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni says the U will be just fine.
He says Kaler's announcement this past summer put potential candidates on notice: "There is no reason to think the university would not get a robust pool of candidates on a brisk timeline."
At the U, the pace of the search was the focus of lively debate at a faculty leadership retreat earlier this fall, said Joseph Konstan, who heads the faculty senate.
Some professors argued the university is rushing; some voiced concern that the regents already have a preferred candidate in mind. Konstan dismisses those worries, drawing a parallel with efforts to make offers to strong graduate student candidates in January before other schools snap them up.
"We are all learning that if we move faster, we have a better chance to get the president we want," he said.
But Jennifer Schultz, a faculty member on the Duluth campus who is a DFL state legislator, said the U's timeline does not seem realistic.
She said a new president installed earlier next year could help the administration's push for state financial support.
But, she said, "I don't want to have two presidents on contract. That doesn't seem like a good use of taxpayer dollars."
Fellow legislator Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, says he'd also like to see the U slow down — even if that means appointing an interim president to take over in July.
"You don't want to get a clinker in there and have remorse because you rushed," he said.