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Do-over on Haywood Community College president search raises questions

Haywood Community College employees earlier this month presented the board of trustees with a list of concerns about the college’s protracted search for a new president.

The community college began looking for a president after retiring president Rose Johnson announced her resignation last year. The search made it all the way to three finalists, who visited the college and met with community members as well as HCC employees.

However, the process stalled at the trustees, who could not agree on a final pick. Instead, the board started the process over again from scratch in August. But this time, the trustees changed their process.

In an attempt to move the process along, the HCC board decided not to hold public meet-and-greets to vet the five finalists like it had the first time around. In fact, the names of the finalists would not be made public at all this time.

This time around, the consultant that HCC hired has a more limited role in the process. For the first search, consultant Donnie Hunter, who was hired at a price of $19,000, solicited applicants and narrowed the pool down to a short list of candidates to be interviewed by the board.

During the second search, Hunter will simply help with the background check. His role was scaled back because of an unsatisfactory outcome the first go-round.

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“That first process didn’t provide the anticipated result,” said Trustee Mary Ann Enloe.

Also, applicants this time would not be required to have a background in higher education or hold a doctorate degree.

“A master’s by the state law is doable,” said Bob Morris, chair of HCC’s Board of Trustees.

By requiring management and leadership experience, not education-specific experience, more people are eligible to apply for the job.

“We opened that up in case some business people apply,” Morris said.

However, in an open letter to trustees, members of HCC’s employee senate stated that they believe a background in higher education is essential.

“Education is not a business,” the letter states, adding that the future president must have knowledge of the inner workings of the community college system.

And, the reduction of the degree requirement from doctorate to master’s is “not appropriate for a college president,” the letter reads. The letter was unsigned; however, the employee senate is comprised of three officers and 17 representatives, both faculty and staff, from various areas of HCC. All employees can attend and participate in senate meetings. 

Although employees said they would prefer a president with a doctorate, there are no state guidelines requiring a specific level of education. In fact, Molly Broad, former head of the University of North Carolina system from 1997 to 2006, only had a master’s degree. Broad did have previous higher education experience though.

“We made the case, what if Bill Gates applied?” Enloe said. “Would we turn him down? I don’t think so.”

The N.C. Community College System gives boards of trustees words of advice when they begin a search for a new president.

“The most important thing you do as a board is to select the president of an institution,” said Ken Briggs, executive vice president of state community college system. “Find the right fit.”

However, community college system representatives do not advise the institutions on how to conduct the search. The state’s only other duties are to conduct background checks on finalists and rubberstamp a college or university’s final choice.

Briggs said that search methods run the gamut — some hire a consultant, and some don’t. Some hold public forums, but not all. The main thing is outlining a process and standing behind it, he said.

“A credible process will go a long way in validating the selection,” Briggs said.

HCC’s Board of Trustees unanimously approved the changes to the process and qualifications for the second search.

“We did change the process this time around, and I am comfortable with the process we chose,” Enloe said. “We will certainly hire the very best person out of those that we can.”


A little more talk

The employee senate’s overarching problem with round two of the presidential search was communication, or the general lack there of.

“The communication is an issue,” said Rudy Beharrysingh, secretary of the employee senate.

HCC staff had their own meet-and-greet with the three finalists in July and expected the board of trustees to name a new president soon after. However, when employees and students returned to campus in August, they found out that a new search was being launched, the job requirements were changed, and the process this time around would be a closed search — without clear explanation.

“A lot of people didn’t know why?” Beharrysingh said. “It seemed like they did not want to include the staff (in the process).”

Employees felt as if they had suddenly been shut out of the process.

Hilary Cobb, chair of the employee senate, said the change might be related to a change in the make-up of the board of trustees.

Turnover on the 12-person board of trustees has been abnormally high, with half the board leaving in the past 15 months. Four new trustees have joined the board since July. 

Trustees can serve multiple four-year terms. Terms are staggered so that only three seats come up for appointment any given year, but since board members will often serve more than one term on the board, turnover can be as low as one or two trustees a year.

The previous board of trustees invited employees to weigh in on the search process, and recommend qualities they would like to see in a new president. They were also invited to meet the finalists.

“We were allowed to be part of (the conversation) with the first Board of Trustees,” Cobb said. “We liked being a part of it, and now that we are not a part of it, we just have to live with whatever the results are.”

Earlier this month, 54 employees met with Board of Trustees Chairman Bob Morris and Trustee Richard Lanning to discuss their concerns.

Beharrysingh said he and other employees realize that the board is not required to include them in the conversation but did not want to start a negative trend.

“We did not want a precedent to be set that we would not have a say,” Beharrysingh said.

Morris and Lanning stated that the board did not intend to cut employees out of the process, according to minutes from their meeting with the employee senate.

“I felt that we had a very good interaction with them,” Lanning said. “We want to keep the employees updated on the process. They are extremely important to us.”

During the first search, outgoing president Rose Johnson had agreed to stay on until a replacement was found. But Johnson’s offer ultimately expired when a second search was launched. The college has brought in an interim president, and thus the trustees may have a different sense of urgency this time around.

Morris and Lanning did not offer up specifics about why they launched a second search but did give a little insight.

“(Morris) stated the board had too many doubts about the original five candidates and that they wanted to get a president that fit the college,” state the minutes from the meeting between employees and the two trustees. “They also said that there was information they were privy to that deterred them from making the decision,” the minutes later state.

And, even though higher education experience was omitted from the job qualifications, the trustees told members of the employee senate that they would not hire anyone without community college experience.

Leaders within the employee senate were optimistic following the meeting.

“We were satisfied with the meeting,” Beharrysingh said. “They got the point that we wanted to be more involved in the process.”

Now, the employee senate must wait and see if anything changes.


Other searches

HCC’s process the second time around is not much different than two other nearby higher education institutions.

When Southwestern Community College needed to find a new president last year, they hired a consultant who narrowed the pool of applicants to six. SCC’s Board of Trustees then interviewed the six, narrowed the group to three, conducted background searches and named a finalist.

The board asked employees and other stakeholders what qualities they wanted to see in SCC’s next president but did not make public the names of the finalists or hold public forums so people could meet them.

“That’s the way it has always been done,” SCC Trustee Conrad Burrell said of the closed search process used at SCC.

Western Carolina University was the same way. It did not publicly announce the names of its finalists either. The board of trustees set up a search committee, which gathered comments and suggestions from stakeholders.

Once the finalists had been narrowed down, they visited the campus and met with faculty, staff, students and community representatives, who then offered feedback on each candidate. But, large-scale public forums were not held.

Some applicants prefer a more closed process because they may not want their current employer or peers to know that they are looking for a new job or a promotion if they are applying from within.

Although universities and colleges are not required to hold open searches, it is still important to gather public input, whether it is at the beginning, middle or end of the process, said Ken Briggs of the state community college system.

“These are community colleges. Community is the key word,” Briggs said. “It’s hard to say we have a community college and not have some community input.”

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