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SLU searches for qualities needed in new president

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Even with a long list of qualities to live up to, and the strife that preceded the departure of the Rev. Lawrence Biondi, the presidency of Saint Louis University is a plum assignment that will draw dozens of applicants, a key figure in the search said Monday.

“I see tremendous reasons why someone would want to come here,” James Ferrare, head of AGB Search, which SLU has hired to help find Biondi’s successor, told a forum on the school’s medical center campus.

Listing assets from a strong endowment to the attributes of St. Louis to the quality of the school’s faculty, staff and students, Ferrare added: “Many many many institutions aspire to be where you are.”

But, he added, the rancor between Biondi and faculty and student groups who voted no confidence in his leadership will hardly be a secret to anyone who is interested in the presidency.

“Everybody out there knows it,” Ferrare said. “We need a president and a faculty that can come together.”

Two forums were held at the university Monday, one on the morning on the medical school campus and the other in the afternoon on the north campus.

Ferrare and his firm were hired after a SLU board meeting last month when an 11-member search committee made up of six trustees, four faculty members and the president of the student government association was named to help find Biondi’s successor.

After a 26-year career as president, Biondi stepped down Sept. 1 and is now president emeritus. Bill Kauffman, general counsel for SLU, is serving as interim president.

After running through a timeline for the search, Ferrare welcomed questions and expressions of what qualities members of the group would like to see in the new president, who he hopes will be in place by July 1 of next year. The meeting was also beamed to the SLU campus in Madrid.

Ferrare emphasized that he is not coming into the search with any pre-conceived notions or names of who the next person to lead SLU should be. “It has to be driven by what you perceive are your needs moving forward,” he said.

He noted that the pool of likely applicants includes people in charge of campuses now as well as people outside of higher education altogether. He said in such situations, there are always people who apply for almost any job that comes along, but in his experience those are not the kinds of candidates who are the best fit.

“The best candidates don’t need the job,” Ferrare said. “They may want the job. They may aspire to the job. But they’re doing well where they are.”

Must president be a Jesuit?

One of the questions asked in each session was obviously on the minds of many of the faculty and staff members present: How much weight will be given to whether the successful candidate is a Jesuit? The SLU bylaws have been rewritten to make it possible to choose for the first time a president who is not a member of the school’s founding order.

Ferrare noted in the afternoon session that two other Jesuit universities, Marquette and San Francisco, are also searching for presidents.

The only comment during the session that drew applause at the medical school session was when someone expressed the hope that the university would become the first Jesuit school to choose a woman as president.

Ferrare said the Jesuit question had been asked in every meeting he has had so far with groups on campus, adding that “it is the right question.”

The answer, he said, may depend not so much on whether a person is a Jesuit as much as whether he – or she – supports the school's Jesuit mission of service.

Beyond that, Ferrare said, the new president will have to be able to lead a complex institution with a medical school, a law school and the many other units that make up the university.

Addressing the specialties of most of the people in his audience in the morning, he stressed the importance of health care and the changes the industry will be facing in the near future. The next president should have either a familiarity with the field or be a quick study, he said.

“It’s a big part of your work,” Ferrare said. “It’s not all of your work, but it’s a big part of your work.”

Other qualities brought up by the audience at both sessions included the importance of scholarship; an understanding of technology and its various roles at a university, from research to business to teaching; the ability to serve as a popular, public face of SLU; managerial expertise; the experience of having achieved tenure in an academic discipline; a global perspective; and an acceptance of shared governance, an issue that prompted much of the rift with Biondi’s administration.

To Roger Lewis, chair of the department of environmental and occupational health at the university’s college for public health and social justice, a top concern is having “someone who will quietly inspire us.” He said Biondi often would come up with inspirational ideas but not follow through.

“It’s wonderful to have a lofty goal,” Lewis said. “What we need is a measured goal.”

Steve Harris, head of the campus chapter of the American Association of University Professors, responded to a concern about a recent exodus of many professors by saying:

“I think that it is time for Saint Louis University to invest strongly in academics. That is one of the biggest points that has been bothering faculty members for the last decade or so. The next president should see that as a way to keep faculty here.”

Noting that the university will be celebrating its 200th anniversary in 2018, Greg Beabout, a professor of philosophy, said that the new president should be able to capitalize on that opportunity to raise the university's profile -- and raise much-needed money as well.

"We have this huge opportunity sitting in front of us with the year 2018," he said. "One of the great challenges for this president is to be an excellent fund raiser, to tell the story of this great university and see the need of the moment, for student scholarships and academic resources."

Countdown to July

After his meeting with campus groups, Ferrare said his firm would begin working next month to get the word out about the SLU vacancy, advertising in higher education publications and also those that would reach Jesuit and other Roman Catholic groups. By the end of October, he said, a detailed profile of what the next president should be, based on information gathered from campus groups, should be complete and distributed publicly.

He expects 80-100 names to surface as a result of that effort, though he added that “the very best candidates in any search come in toward the end of the recruiting period, not the beginning.”

Those candidates whose qualifications match SLU’s needs will move on to the next step, where the search committee will look in their backgrounds and careers. Ferrare said that step should winnow the list further, from 50-60 candidates to a short list of eight to 12.

From there, due diligence begins, with members of the search committee looking into not just the candidates’ references or websites but having conversations with others as well as within the committee. The shorter list that grows out of that effort will result in candidates who will have preliminary interviews, probably in early February.

“That’s the first time members of the search committee really get to see and interact with candidates,” he said. “That’s really the first time candidates get to see and interact with the search committee.”

At that point, the committee and the search firm hand off their conclusions to the SLU board of trustees, which is expected to make a final decision in the early spring, followed by a couple of months of transition before the newly designated president takes office July 1.

One issue in any such exercise is whether the search will be an open one, where finalists’ names are made public and they come to campus to meet with various groups; or a closed one, where their names are kept confidential and only those directly involved in the selection know who they are.

The closed process is most often used when candidates are currently leading other universities and may not want to take the risk of having their names go public, whether or not they end up getting the job. Ferrare said that searches try to maintain a balance, shielding candidates who want to remain under the radar but also making the process as inclusive as possible.

Jane Turner, head of the SLU faculty senate, said after the session that she hopes the search will be open, at least in the final stages.

“At some point,” she said, “the candidates are going to have to come on campus. Faculty, staff and students need the opportunity to meet those finalists.”

Ferrare ended each session by urging everyone to become part of the search process network, putting forward the names of anyone they think might be the right candidate to become the next SLU president. That kind of wide net, he said, usually yields the best results.

"Your input today is critical," he said.

“I’m often asked what makes for an unsuccessful search. It’s not not finding someone. It’s finding the wrong person.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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