Pa.'s state-owned universities paid a million in searches for new presidents
Filling the presidential manse at Pennsylvania's 14 state-owned universities is a pricey proposition.
Records show eight universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education spent nearly $1 million — averaging more than $120,000 — on searches to fill presidential vacancies since 2010.
Search costs that ranged from $143,700 at Indiana University of Pennsylvania to $97,700 at Millersville University of Pennsylvania included bills for executive search consultants, travel, catering, advertising and background checks for candidates.
Though consulting fees make up the biggest part of the bills, a breakdown of costs for the searches showed travel for consultants, trustees and job candidates, some of whom live as far away as Alaska, came in second in most cases.
At Indiana, bills for travel, food and room rentals totaled $46,789. At Edinboro, travel costs were $48,715.
An ongoing search for a state system chancellor, expected to conclude this summer, and presidential vacancies at Shippensburg and California universities guarantee executive search bills will continue to mount.
“We've seen a lot of change,” conceded Karen Ball, vice chancellor for external affairs at the State System of Higher Education.
Some university leaders left for greener pastures. Others exited amid controversy. Still others retired after lengthy tenures.
“There's no one overall trend. It just all seemed to happen at the same time,” Ball said.
State system guidelines require university trustees to form a search committee and hire an executive search firm when presidential vacancies occur.
It's up to the committee working with the search firm to identify the university's needs and select three finalists. But the Board of Governors, which oversees the state system, makes the decision.
That's a sore point with state Rep. Glenn Grell, R-Mechanicsburg. Grell, a longtime Shippensburg trustee, said some university trustees would have preferred to short-circuit the process and appoint a longstanding university administrator to the presidency when the position opened recently.
“In these times, when resources are so scarce, it didn't make sense to spend the money,” Grell said.
Jessica Kozloff was president of Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania for 13 years before retiring to head Academic Searches Inc., a Washington-based firm. Last year, her company collected $76,666 for a presidential search for East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania.
State records reflect costs for that search totaled $100,071, including about $20,000 for travel and $3,200 for meals and room rentals.
Kozloff said such costs aren't out of line, given the work that a search requires.
“You have all of the travel expenses to interviews, background checks. There's an awful lot that goes into it,” she said, estimating the process typically involves six months of active searching.
John Hicks, a retired Slippery Rock University professor, was a member of the search committee whose work led to the appointment of Cheryl Norton as Slippery Rock president last year. He was taken aback when he learned how much the searches cost — Slippery Rock's totaled $117,744.
Yet Hicks said the work is intensive, “and every bit of information you can get is valuable.”
“I suppose if you didn't spend the money and didn't get a good president, you'd think it would be well worthwhile. We ended up with five good candidates we felt we could live with,” Hicks said, adding that Norton has proven to be a thoughtful, self-confident leader.
A survey by the American Council on Education suggests college presidents moved through executive offices more frequently in recent years. The survey of 1,662 colleges and universities found the average tenure of college presidents declined from 8.5 years in 2006 to 7 years in 2011.
And it's not just the state universities that pay six-figure search fees.
At least four major research institutions — the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State University, Ohio State University and the University of Michigan — are seeking chief executives. The search costs could run even higher at research schools. Though Pitt, Penn State and Ohio State haven't released dollar amounts, the University of Michigan recently adopted a $350,000 budget for its search.
Debra Erdley is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or firstname.lastname@example.org.