The final tab for the recent University of Minnesota presidential search totaled almost $260,000.
The costs include $165,000 in fees for outside search consultants, more than $22,000 for search committee and regent travel and about $15,000 to a local four-star hotel, which hosted interviews with nine leading candidates.
The university released a tally of the costs Wednesday, almost three months after its governing board hired University of South Carolina Provost Joan Gabel and the Star Tribune requested those expenses.
The spending data offers fresh insight behind the scenes of the high-stakes search, which drew some criticism from regents and open government advocates for producing a lone finalist. The numbers show, for instance, that the U paid roughly $1,500 to rent a second hotel conference room and provide refreshments so the Board of Regents chair and vice chair could meet with candidates after their search committee interviews. Learning of these meetings after the fact, some regents decried these encounters, which board leaders had described as brief, informal meet-and-greets.
David McMillan, the board chairman, said the presidential search cost was money well spent.
“It is a lot of money, but when you consider the consequential nature of this decision and the importance of getting some help, I don’t feel bad about this number at all,” he said.
In July, Gabel, the first female president in the U’s history, will take over for Eric Kaler, who started in 2011 after a search that cost about $230,700. Gabel will make $640,000 in base salary.
The largest chunk of the search costs went to enlist consultants to help recruit candidates and coordinate the search. The university hired search firm Storbeck/Pimentel for a $200,000 fee, bypassing a formal request for proposals. But the U parted ways with Storbeck in early October when the firm also took on the Michigan State University presidential search, which regents said would divide the consultants’ loyalties.
The firm agreed to return its fee, but it did charge the university $10,351 in expenses it had incurred for business-class airfare, lodging, parking, rental cars and Uber rides. The U then signed on with another consulting firm, AGB Search, which charged a fee of $150,000.
McMillan touted the board’s move to negotiate a flat fee rather than agreeing to pay a percentage of the new president’s compensation — a common practice in searches for top campus leaders that can create a “perverse incentive” for consultants, McMillan said. Given Gabel’s salary and benefits package, the U saved money with the flat fee.
The university also paid $15,000 to conduct a so-called executive assessment on Gabel — an in-depth interview, aptitude test and simulation with real-life scenarios to gauge her fit for the job. The U started conducting such assessments — a staple of corporate world hiring — on would-be senior leaders in 2016.
McMillan said the university wanted to have an “overly and extremely inclusive” process: a 23-member search committee featuring representatives from all five campuses, listening sessions across the state to kick off the search and forums with Gabel on each campus. That choice added search committee travel and other expenses, but it was worth it, McMillan said.
In some cases, the U had to chip in extra to whisk busy committee members to search events. Laura Bloomberg, the Humphrey School dean and committee vice chair, who was at a work event in New York, flew back on a $681 flight to attend a committee meeting and returned to New York the following day.
The university also paid about $6,800 to advertise the position in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Hispanic Outlook, Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, Native Americans in Higher Education and Women in Higher Education.
In early November, the search committee did “airport interviews” over three days with nine applicants. The $14,977 bill from the InterContinental Hotel near Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport included conference room rentals, food and about $250 per night for hotel rooms for consultants and candidates. The cost of tea, coffee and soft drinks alone added up to almost $3,000.
In e-mails, AGB Search consultants and board office staff stressed the importance of shielding the identities of applicants — non-public under Minnesota law — telling hotel staff that this was an AGB meeting, with no mention of the U. In its contract with the U, Storbeck had suggested conducting those interviews via videoconference to keep down expenses. But McMillan said he believes it was important to do the interviews face-to-face.
In a nearby conference room, McMillan and Kendall Powell, the board’s vice chair, met with applicants after their formal interviews. McMillan stressed he and Powell did not interview the candidates but did get a chance to size them up. As a result, he said, “We were better prepared to bring our recommendations through to the board.”
He later clarified he was referring to the search committee’s recommendation to name Gabel as sole finalist, which he and Powell felt comfortable endorsing because they had met her and the other top contenders. He noted similar meetings between board leaders and leading candidates also took place during the Kaler search.
Several regents voiced concern about the meetings, suggesting they raised questions about board leader influence on the committee’s work. In e-mails to colleagues, regent Michael Hsu said the access to the applicants by McMillan and Powell had created “a have and have-not divide on the Board.”
Hsu said this week he was led to believe McMillan and Powell stood outside the interview room to shake hands with the applicants and thank them. Though the conference room expense seems unnecessary, he said his main concern remains that other regents were not told ahead of time about these meetings — especially if they were becoming a staple of the process dating back to the Kaler search.
“A small group of regents got together and decided who the leading candidate was before they came to us,” he said. “It doesn’t make it right that they happened to pick someone I like.”
McMillan and committee chair Abdul Omari also flew to meet with the three candidates recommended by the search committee to persuade them over dinner to become public finalists. Only Gabel agreed to do so even if she was not the sole finalist.
The cost of these trips was included in roughly $46,000 for AGB Search expenses, which also includes the InterContentinental bill, advertising costs, candidate travel and more. The U said it could not readily itemize those costs Wednesday.
Judith Wilde, chief operating officer and professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University who studies presidential searches, says these expenses have been steadily rising.
Wilde commended the U for negotiating a flat fee with its consultants. Still, she said the U search was among the most expensive she has seen. With employee time factored in, she said, “it’s even more expensive than it seems.”