The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Opinion

June 20, 2013

Henry Morgan, guest columnist: Re-evaluate MSSU president selection process

JOPLIN, Mo. — Suffering a 100 percent failure rate in the selection of Missouri Southern State University presidents would seem to suggest that it is time to re-evaluate the selection process.

No MSSU president has left the position voluntarily. We might exempt from that judgment Leon Billingsly, Southern’s first president, who died in office of a heart attack, but the other three have all left by action of the Board of Regents (now the Board of Governors). The board is probably the most powerful element in creating the Presidential Search Committee, its composition and its procedures, which led to the hiring of the three presidents.  

A common and major complaint against all of these presidents has been their failure to communicate with the university’s faculty, treating them more like serfs to the manor than fellow professionals.

When I was beginning my academic career in the 1950s and ’60s, my professors and mentors spoke often of the concept of “primus inter pares,” first among equals. We young future professors were taught that an institution needed guidance, someone to make decisions affecting the institution, but that in an institution of higher learning, we were all equals, giving respect to and receiving respect from one another. This element has been sorely lacking at MSSU, certainly during the 30 years I was a member of the Southern faculty and also during the 12 years since my retirement, if what I read in the papers and hear from former colleagues still teaching there is true.

How might this abysmal situation have been avoided in the past? Where did the past presidential search committees go wrong? What did they do that they shouldn’t have, or what did they not do that they should have? The Globe reports (June 19) that board Chairwoman Sherry Buchanan “said that the search will be board-driven, as it is the board’s legal responsibility to hire a president.” Let us hope that the board will attempt to answer the questions above before it proceeds.

One measure seems glaringly obvious: Contact people at the candidate’s former places of employment for their opinions about the candidate. As a member of numerous search committees, I realize the importance of this often-neglected step in the hiring process. I remember the admonition of my former department head, Dr. Henry Harder, in every search committee we served on together: “Find out what those who served with and under the candidate thought of him or her.”

From everything that I have been able to learn, the last three presidential search committees failed to respond to this admonition or did so inadequately. Several who were called upon to serve on previous presidential search committees told friends and colleagues that they believed the search committees devoted inadequate attention to background checks and to soliciting opinions of candidates’ colleagues.

Every search committee doubtless requires letters of recommendation to accompany the candidate’s application. These are often valuable tools in the assessment of candidates, but they are inadequate by themselves. The search committee must contact some of the candidate’s present and former colleagues whose identities and positions can be determined by perusal of the websites of the institutions. These are steps commonly employed at the departmental level in the search for new faculty members. Surely they should be employed in the much more crucial search for a president. Sending a member of the search committee to the institution currently employing the candidate in order to personally interview personnel would be a major step forward.

Every college possesses a remarkably talented, capable and helpful resource — its faculty — that too often is overlooked by administrators and boards. There is expertise in virtually every field of human endeavor represented by its faculty. I urge the board to avail itself of this valuable resource in its coming efforts to procure a president for MSSU.

I also urge the board to consider not basing the new search committee on former ones, but rather learning what others have written about how to create search committees. There are dozens of articles on the Internet addressing this subject. One of the best, in my opinion, is “Search Committee Fundamentals for Faculty Members,” published by the Office of Legal Affairs at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.

At least consider that your former attempts leave much to be desired and much to improve upon. You have earned an F so far. Want to bring that grade up? All of us — faculty, administration, employees and the public — want the best for Southern. We expect and deserve a better result this time.

Henry “Bud” Morgan is a retired MSSU English professor. He lives in Joplin.

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