A search committee at the University of Minnesota has delivered its list of candidates for U president to the Board of Regents, pushing a quiet, months-long process toward its delicate -- and public -- final phase.

On Friday, a search advisory committee recommended four candidates to the regents, who will consider them and then publicly name finalists.

At that point, it will become clear whether the U can attract academic superstars for its top job at a time of shrinking resources and growing expectations -- especially if it must endure a public vetting of the finalists.

"You really have a limited pool of people right now," said Rita Bornstein, president emerita of Rollins College in Florida and an expert on higher education leadership. Because of big challenges to universities, including state funding cuts, "most boards are looking for someone who has experience being a president." That's not an easy feat.

But Clyde Allen, regents chairman, said there's "a strong pool." After considering the nominations, the board will hold a public meeting and identify finalists before interviewing them, as required by state law. The board plans to name a new president by the end next month.

The U is replacing President Robert Bruininks, who will step down next summer, at a time when state support has been declining and resulting tuition increases have brought protests from families and state legislators. The person chosen will step into an increasingly complex job that requires a host of skills. According to the job description, he or she must be "a creative fundraiser," a "skilled planner and budgeter," an "effective communicator" and a "politically astute leader."

Recent surveys show that, nationally, pipelines to the president's post could be drying up. Fewer than a third of all sitting chief academic officers aspire to presidencies or chancellorships, according to a 2009 study by the American Council on Education. People in that job, sometimes called provost, are generally considered good candidates for president. Before he took charge of the U, Bruininks held that post.

Making the head hunt harder is that the U is a public institution, and state law demands that names of finalists be public. That makes recruiting sitting presidents of other institutions -- a goal of the U's search -- "very, very challenging," said Bornstein, because such candidates might worry about souring relations at their current spot.

Some faculty members, however, have challenged the need for secrecy and point out that a public forum means more people have a chance to vet the candidates.

In 2002, after secretly interviewing several candidates netted in a national search, the regents rejected the search advisory committee's recommendations and chose Bruininks, then serving as interim president.

In that search, as in others across the country, the public university weighed transparency against privacy.

A recent search for the top job at Florida State University -- in which candidates' names were public from the very beginning -- attracted 26 candidates. Not one was a sitting president. After selecting the new president of the University of Tennessee in October, a member of that school's board wrote that the process -- also public from the very beginning -- "discourages many highly qualified candidates."

In contrast, the University of Minnesota's search, so far, has been conducted privately. Candidates will become public only once the regents select them as finalists.

That's more than reasonable, said Jane Kirtley, director of the U's Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law.

"If you're going to be the president of a public university, one of the first things you have to accept is that you're going to be subject to public oversight," she said. "You might as well get used to it."

Allen has said that if one candidate comes out "head and shoulders" above the others, the board might pick just one finalist.

That possibility -- one Allen now calls unlikely -- has worried some. "We're talking about a land-grant university, a university that survives to a great extent on taxpayer dollars," Kirtley said. "The public literally has a right to know how this search process is being conducted."

Such a tactic would also deny professors and students a chance to participate in the decision, said William Gleason, a faculty member in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology. "They are going to get egg on their face if they try to pull that," he said.

In 2004, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that the regents violated the state's Open Meeting Law and Data Practices Act by interviewing finalists in secret, refusing to release their names. Several media organizations sued to force release of those names, and the U eventually complied.

General Counsel Mark Rotenberg has said in this search, the U will "live within the Supreme Court's decision." Naming one finalist would not violate the law.

Allen said his comments were meant to simply alert people to the possibility that one candidate could come out on top. But that's a slim possibility, he said. "I expect that there would be a number of finalists," he added.

The board seems to be staying "flexible," which is appropriate, said Kathryn Vandenbosch, chair of the Faculty Consultative Committee. A top-notch candidate, worried about his or her job now, might request to be the only finalist considered. Vandenbosch said she trusts the board to make that call. "I certainly have a high level of trust that they will sift out the best of the best," she said.

Whether it's one finalist or five, professors and the public will have a chance to interview the candidates in a public forum, Allen wrote in an e-mail to members of the university community. "We continue to welcome your thoughts as the search enters these critical stages," he said.

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168