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WCU chancellor interview process begins

WCU chancellor interview process begins

In a search that is now entering its second year, Western Carolina University’s Chancellor Search Committee is preparing to interview the top candidates applying for the job left vacant by the late Chancellor David O. Belcher. 

“You’ve got a great group of candidates,” said search committee member George Little, a former WCU Trustee who currently sits on the UNC Pembroke Board of Trustees, while attending a Jan. 14 search committee meeting via conference call. “This is about my fourth or fifth search process at a university or business level, so you’ve got a very good candidate list, a very good candidate list.”

The search process is confidential, with no candidates’ names made public save the person who is eventually chosen for the job. While Little was impressed with the applicants, the 58 people who applied this time around makes for a smaller pool than the 68 people who sought the position during the first round of applications last winter.

Belcher, who passed away in June 2018, left his post as chancellor at the end of 2017, going on medical leave after treatment stopped working on a brain tumor he’d been battling for nearly two years. A 21-member search committee formed in December 2017 to seek his replacement, garnering input from the community on what kind of person should get the job, launching a nationwide search and winnowing the field down to three people. The WCU Board of Trustees approved the unranked list, which was sent to UNC System President Margaret Spellings to make a final selection, pending approval from the Board of Governors. 

But the Board of Governors never voted on the candidate Spellings selected, saying that the body needed to revisit the chancellor search process completely. The candidate in question eventually withdrew from consideration. This fall, the Board of Governors decided the new search process would in fact apply only to future chancellor searches, not the one currently underway at WCU, and that the chancellor search should resume using the same process employed the first time around — thus, the search committee began accepting applications once more, with a deadline of Jan. 4. 

In the midst of all of this, Spellings — whose relationship with the Board of Governors had been strained for some time — resigned her post less than three years after she took it. Dr. Bill Roper — who was CEO of UNC Health Care, dean of the UNC School of Medicine and vice chancellor for medical affairs at UNC Chapel Hill — became the interim president, but no timeline or process for naming a permanent replacement has yet been announced. Spellings’ last day on the job was Jan. 15. 

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All of that means that it’s still a mystery who will be the one sitting in the president’s office — and therefore responsible for selecting the final chancellor candidate — by the time WCU is ready to forward those names in March. 

Invite to the Board of Governors

While WCU is using the same search process as it did the last time around, that doesn’t mean there won’t be some tweaks. One of those tweaks is an invitation for three Board of Governors members to attend dinner with the handful of candidates selected for on-campus interviews, to be held in February. 

“We are asking three of our regional Board of Governors members to be with the Board of Trustees for one purpose only, and that is to try to facilitate the discussion once it gets to Chapel Hill,” said Bryant Kinney, vice chair of the Board of Trustees and co-chair of the search committee. “We are not asking them for evaluation (of the candidates).”

The three Board of Governors members to receive invitations will be Carolyn Coward, Louis Bissette and Phil Byers, all of whom live in Western North Carolina. Both Coward and Byers are previous members of the WCU Board of Trustees. 

“We just felt like that would be a nice thing to do, and we would have more people who had eyes on the candidates when it came before the full board for a vote,” Pat Kaemmerling, who chairs the Board of Trustees and co-chairs the search committee, said Jan. 14.

The invitation could be seen as an effort to ensure that the search doesn’t disintegrate the way it did the last time around, but it could also be interpreted as a nod toward recent revisions to the chancellor search process. Those revisions are not binding on the process at WCU, but the new rules state that the search committee is “encouraged to engage selected members of the Board of Governors who may live within proximity to the institution or otherwise have a particular interest in or knowledge of the institution and its mission to attend constituent forums, candidate receptions or other events at which candidates are present.” However, the rules do explicitly forbid Board of Governors members from sitting on the search committee. 

The revised chancellor search process also states that universities should seek candidates with “alternative backgrounds” such as business, industry, nonprofit and government careers in addition to those coming from academia — during the application period, WCU made it clear that such candidates were welcome. 

Fine-tuning the process

Of the 21 members on the original search committee, 20 agreed to serve for the second round — everybody with the exception of a student member who had graduated. Those members are using their experiences from last year to improve the search process where possible, spending an hour before going into closed session Jan. 14 discussing tweaks to questions and formats for the upcoming interviews. 

“We got a lot of feedback from the committee that the questions at the last interview process were too long and complicated and convoluted and by the time you got the question out people weren’t really sure how to answer it,” said Kaemmerling. “Bryant (Kinney) and I took a stab at reducing some of these.”

In the first round, the committee had devised enough questions for each of its 21 members to ask one. The winnowed-down list includes only 15 questions, with more simplified and focused language than the original list. The revised questions also aim to reduce front-loading — in other words, the search committee wants to hear from the candidates rather than influencing their answers with leading questions. 

“I don’t want to tee it up too much. I want to hear from them,” said Kellie Angelo Monteith, a search committee member who works as assistant vice chancellor for student affairs at WCU.

The search committee is set to hold off-campus interviews with the top 10 candidates Jan. 31 through Feb. 2, with finalists invited for on-campus interviews later in February. The search committee will make every effort to create an identical campus experience for each candidate, with the same selection of trustees, Board of Governors members, students, faculty and staff present each day. 

“It’s really unfair to have someone come and see two of five candidates or three of four candidates,” said Kaemmerling. “You really can’t make an evaluation that way. You need a commitment.”

A final list of three candidates will go to the Board of Trustees for consideration at its March meeting, with the UNC System President — whoever that may be at the time — reviewing the candidates in April and the Board of Governors potentially voting on a final selection in May. The goal is to have a new chancellor in place before the fall 2019 semester begins. 

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