As the search for a president of the University of Missouri system accelerates, more people are interested in the job than expected.
That was the word Thursday from John Isaacson, a consultant hired by the search committee that is leading the hunt for a successor to Tim Wolfe, the system president who resigned in November, following racial protests in Columbia.
The search committee, which had convened electronically a few times this year, met in person for the first time at Mizzou. Kelley Stuck, the system’s interim vice president for human relations, said that so far, the search process is going well.
“We really feel positive that we are on track to develop a strong pool of candidates for this position,” Stuck told the committee, which includes curators, students and other representatives from the system’s four campuses.
As his firm, Isaacson-Miller, reaches out nationally for possible candidates for the presidency, Isaacson said fewer candidates than expected were expressing interest in the job for a leading position at a public university. He said that response is a tribute to the work done so far in selling the attributes of the university system.
“We’ve been able to make a good case for this system, and people have responded to it,” he said. “So, we’re very pleased where we are. That doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods, folks. We’re only halfway through building this pool, and probably only a third of the way through this search. But so far, so good.”
Stuck will lead the committee through the search schedule from now until the end of the year, when the curators hope to have a successor to Wolfe chosen.
She likened the winnowing of the broadest candidate pool to a funnel, using characteristics such as the qualifications developed earlier by the committee as well as experience, to come up with a smaller list.
Following initial interviews of as long as 90 minutes, she said, members of the committee should use a common rubric to rank possible candidates, so all interviewees are judged by the same criteria. A narrower list of finalists would be invited back for a second round of interviews.
Stuck said a series of open-ended questions are the best way to judge the candidates, focusing on their experience that may have prepared them for the presidency.
She cautioned that certain types of personal questions are barred by law, such as age, race, sexual orientation and health. But that would not prohibit committee members from asking how candidates have dealt with circumstances growing out of those areas; a lack of knowledge about Wolfe’s experience with racial problems has been criticized as one of the reasons his presidency ran aground.
Stuck also emphasized that while a candidate’s knowledge and skills are important, the basis for judging anyone’s fitness for the presidency should be his or her basic talent.
“I would encourage the committee to really focus on asking questions about the candidate’s skills and abilities,” she said. “Too often, time in an interview goes very fast.
“We’ll focus the interview questions on that previous experience. We’ll explore in depth how they have interacted in their work experience, and try to evaluate how that work experience and those abilities may relate to the qualifications that we have identified. This is the lens that should be on the candidate – what their past abilities and experiences are, what they have accomplished to date.”
The curators also approved a $3.1 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins on July 1.
As has been typical for the past several years, money from student and tuition fees totals more than the money appropriated by the state: for fiscal year 2017, 50 percent from tuition to 37 percent from state appropriations. Missouri ranks 43rd out of 50 states in its funding for higher education.
Brian Burnett, the system’s vice president for finance, noted that the gap between what the state provides and what students pay widens every year, as enrollment overall has grown and state funds have not kept pace.
“It would take a massive public policy change to reverse that,” Burnett said.
The budget seeks to make up the $3.8 million that was cut from the university system’s budget by the legislature this year. The university did receive nearly $18 million in performance funding after meeting all of its performance targets.
But while long-term enrollment is up overall, the system is expected to receive $34 million less in net tuition and fees from the four campuses. Enrollment drops at the St. Louis and Columbia campuses are responsible for the decrease.
At UMSL, enrollment is expected to fall by 3 percent, though Chancellor Tom George told the curators he hopes the final number is lesss than that. Because of a budget shortfall of $15.4 million, the campus has cut 85 jobs and taken other cost-cutting measures.
George said that UMSL has added recruiters to concentrate on areas such as Chicago and the Far East to bring in more students. He also noted that one reason for the decline has been a similar drop in enrollment at St. Louis Community College, which has been a primary feeder school for UMSL.
One particular area of concern that George noted is students who now choose Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, which charges in-state tuition for students from Missouri. George noted that with Edwardsville right across the river from north St. Louis County, a primary target area for UMSL as well, the competition has become stronger in recent years.
“They’re actually recruiting in our backyard,” George said. “And so North County, where we could simply snap our fingers and a lot of North County students would come to UMSL, that doesn’t happen anymore.”
Before the meeting began, three new curators named last week by Gov. Jay Nixon – Mary Nelson and Tom Voss of St. Louis and Jon Sundvold of Columbia – were sworn in, along with the student representative to the board, Gene Patrick Graham from Mizzou. All will be part of the search committee for the new president.
The University of Missouri’s Board of Curators holds the license for St. Louis Public Radio.
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