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Making the case for secrecy

Using a private process that benefits applicants, Witt/Kieffer will find CMU's next president, but will provide no insight to students, faculty and staff on that choice


After the board of trustees selected Witt/Kieffer as its search firm, Central Michigan University formally began looking for the successor to President George Ross, who will step down July 31.

Witt/Kieffer is an Illinois-based executive search firm that specializes in finding leaders for health care, academics, life science and nonprofit organizations.  

The firm has worked with CMU in the past, finding College of Medicine Dean George Kikano and Vice President for Advancement Bob Martin. The firm was chosen in October to assist with the search for a person to be CMU’s vice president and chief diversity officer. 

On Feb. 27, a press release from University Communications announced that Witt/Kieffer would also be involved in the search for the replacement of Ross. “Witt/Kieffer values the input of the entire university community as we identify key qualifications and traits, and they have the reputation and connections to help us secure excellent candidates,” said Tricia Keith, chair of the presidential search committee in the press release. 

An executive search firm for 45 years, Witt/Kieffer has conducted plenty of successful presidential searches — but it’s also been a part of some controversies. 

According to an article written by Business North Carolina, Witt/Kieffer returned a $110,000 check to the University of North Carolina System President Margaret Spellings on Feb. 2. Spellings said that “WK’s performance on this search did not meet our expectations in terms of communications with the search consultant,” Business North Carolina reported. Witt/Kieffer has been barred from doing any future work with the UNC system.

The lead consultant on the search was Lucy Leske, a senior partner at Witt/Kieffer. The consultant assisting her was John Thornburgh, a senior partner and the consultant leading the CMU presidential search.

During the presidential search at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, concerns about Witt/Kieffer were raised by members of the search committee. 

FGCU Board of Trustees Chair Dudley Goodlette said he was concerned about Witt/Kieffer’s familiarity with Florida’s Sunshine Laws. In Florida, public universities must make records related to administrative searches open to the public. The committee chose Witt/Kieffer in an 11-3 vote. 

Witt/Kieffer has completed presidential searches in Florida before, but the searches were all for private colleges.

Central Michigan Life reached out to Witt/Kieffer for comment for this story, but the firm declined.

CMU’s search has been characterized by Keith as “open, but confidential.” That means, according to Keith, only one candidate’s name will be announced and that will only happen after the person has accepted the job as CMU’s 15th president. 

According to the Association of Governing Boards of universities and colleges, in an open search, the public knows who applied and has the opportunity to give input during the search. Candidates typically visit campus and meet faculty and students during an open search. 

In a confidential search, candidates’ names are not disclosed. Members of the public offer input before the search to create a “presidential profile.” 

In a closed search, the search committee neither releases names nor gathers public input.

Strengths of open searches include transparency, candidates getting to know the campus, public input and public vetting, according to the American Association of University Professors. “The presidential selection process is a classic conflict between the right of individual privacy and the public’s right to know,” wrote the Association of Governing Boards.

However, open searches may provide obstacles. Highly qualified candidates at high-paying jobs may not be willing to risk their jobs by applying publicly. Going public could result in losing a job, the university’s trust or result in a decrease in university funding. 

Jan Greenwood, a search consultant for Greenwood/Asher and Associates Inc. said finding applicants for an open search has become much more difficult in her 20 years of consulting. She told The Chronicle of Higher Education that 20 years ago, she could make 50 calls and get 20 great candidates for a position. Today, after making 350-700 calls, she can sometimes only get three to five candidates in an open search.

Confidentiality can create larger candidate pools and attract better-qualified candidates, according to the Association of Governing Boards. Confidential and closed searches can attract more than 100 candidates, like the president search at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado and Whittier College in Whittier, California. Both searches were conducted by Witt/Kieffer.

When the public doesn’t know who the applicants are, it could result in a president who is not vetted to the fullest potential. For example, in 1984 John Elac accepted the presidency at the University of New Mexico, but withdrew his candidacy after his second visit to campus because faculty questioned his credentials. He hadn’t even signed his contract yet. The dispute was covered by the New York Times.

Another issue is cost. Highly-qualified candidates generally receive higher salaries. When they have confidentiality while applying for new positions, their current jobs are safe. This gives them them leverage in salary negotiations, Judith Wilde and James Finkelstein wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education. 

Many search firms are paid a percentage of the new president’s salary in addition to a fee for their services, according to Rick Seltzer for Inside Higher Ed. That means if a highly-qualified candidate is hired for a larger salary, the search firm will also benefit financially through a higher “professional fee.” 

Search firm fees alone cost a lot of money for universities. An analysis from Dayton Daily News in Ohio found Ohio colleges and universities spent at least $15 million on search firms from 2005 to 2016. Some colleges, including The Ohio State University, didn’t provide the public records the newspaper requested. Estimates say the figure could be as high as $25 million in the 10-year period.

For the CMU presidential search, the university is paying Witt/Kieffer a variety of fees. Director of Communications Heather Smith told Central Michigan Life in February that CMU will pay Witt/Kieffer a professional fee, an administrative fee and reimbursement for additional out-of-pocket expenses. The professional fee is one-third of the new president’s starting salary and the administrative fee will be either 10 percent of the professional fee or $10,000 – whichever figure is lower. 

At the April 19 board of trustees meeting, Keith said an advertisement for the position will be published in The Chronicle of Higher Education and Witt/Kieffer is accepting nominations for candidates on their website.

During this meeting, the board voted to approve the leadership profile that was constructed through information from public forums.

Keith said the search committee will be accepting nominations through June 1, although the date is a soft deadline. To ensure they choose the best candidate, the committee will take nominations until the day they announce their choice, Keith said.

“We will hire the right candidate regardless of the timeline,” Keith said. “We are aggressive in our push around time, but very deliberate in our process.”