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Leader searches look to be arduous at Penn State, Carnegie Mellon

Debra Erdley
| Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012, 11:38 p.m.

The stakes couldn't be higher at Carnegie Mellon University and Penn State University this fall.

Both presidencies are in play as search committees hunker down to determine who will lead the schools — both internationally known research universities and major economic drivers in Pennsylvania. Neither the job nor the search will be easy.

Penn State's new president will lead a public research university with law and medical schools, 19 branch campuses, 96,000 students and a budget of $4.3 billion a year. CMU, a private research university with 11,000 students and a budget of $1 billion a year, has branch campuses in California's Silicon Valley and Doha, Qatar.

Jessica Kozloff, president of Academic Search Inc., a search firm that specializes in higher education, said a strong president is essential to any university's success.

“When you have a good president, you almost don't notice you have a good president. Good presidents inspire people to pull together, and you do things as a team. Often the value a good president provides isn't noticed until they're gone,” she said.

Although CMU and Penn State have presidential compensation packages approaching $1 million a year, the pool of candidates narrows quickly when universities outline the qualifications they seek, said Jan Greenwood, president and CEO of Greenwood/Asher & Associates Inc.

For example, “most of the very elite high-profile research universities are extremely complex. They want someone who can increase academic quality and bring in funds. They're looking for leadership and vision first, management skills second, and resource development abilities third,” Greenwood said. She added that most schools want someone who has executive experience at a similiar institution.

“Last year, there were 18 research universities with posts open and there were six people nationally who met the profile of those institutions,” she said.

Greenwood and Kozloff said many university presidents and provosts who have strong track records typically range in age from the late 50s to the mid-70s, so personal considerations may weigh against a move.

Although Penn State officials said they will look at candidates both within and outside higher education, only a small minority of schools do so. Purdue University made headlines when it named Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels as its president-elect recently, but it is among only 20 percent of schools to take that route, according to the American Council on Education.

Larry Cata Backer, chairman of Penn State's faculty senate, said such a decision there could underscore a commitment to change as the university works to distance itself from the Jerry Sandusky scandal that led to the ouster of longtime President Graham Spanier, 64, last fall.

“There is a chance that a nonacademic can open the door to great innovation and bring Penn State back to an ‘industry leader' position. On the other hand, in the event of a culture clash, the presidency could be short, brutal and contentious. ... A seasoned academic can hit the ground running, and that is something valuable,” Backer said.

A third scenario that Kozloff says is more common in the corporate world but less common in higher education would be the selection of a new leader from within a school.

Penn State trustees last week approved a framework to seek a successor to President Rodney Erickson. Erickson, 66, whom trustees named president after Spanier's ouster, is retiring on June 30, 2014.

Trustees plan to engage a yet-to-be named consultant to work with a search committee representing university constituencies and a council of trustees to select a successor by November 2013.

At CMU, where longtime President Jared Cohon, 65, is scheduled to retire on June 30, a committee of trustees and faculty members is in the final stages of a search they conducted with Storbeck Pimentel, a suburban Philadelphia firm that is assisting to find a new chancellor for the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

“The significance of this search is very great. That individual can strongly affect how the university develops. Over time, he or she can greatly influence the university,” said CMU professor Anthony Rollett, who is serving on the faculty search committee.

CMU officials, who say their process will remain confidential, are scheduled to begin final interviews with candidates the first of the year and have said they will name a president before the end of the spring term.

As at Penn State, recent events at CMU, where a series of top administrators and professors have left in recent months, might cause some candidates to raise questions, said Kozloff. But she said the aging of university leaders means qualified personnel are constantly being recruited at other universities.

Rollett said the recent personnel changes are a testament to the fact that the school “produces people other schools are constantly trying to poach,” rather than any red flag for candidates.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or

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