The price of a new Edinboro leader: A look at presidential search costs

Category:  News
Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019 at 4:45 PM
The price of a new Edinboro leader: A look at presidential search costs by Shayma Musa
The cost of presidential searches has gone down for EU thanks to additional PASSHE funding. | Graphic: Jamie Heinrich

$395,575.

That’s how much — over the course of nine years (2010-2019) — the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) and Edinboro University (EU) have spent on three presidential searches that resulted in the following leaders: Dr. Julie Wollman in 2012, Dr. H. Fred Walker in 2016, and, most recently, Dr. Guiyou Huang in summer 2019.

Edinboro isn’t alone in turnover at the top. 

The entire PASSHE system has undergone 22 presidential searches since 2010. Among the 22 searches completed, six universities — Millersville, Slippery Rock, Lock Haven, Shippensburg and Clarion — had two presidential searches each over the course of that period. Edinboro leads with three (Wollman, Walker and Huang) occurring in that same time.

According to a report by the American Council of Education in 2017, a similar trend stretches even further, as the average tenure of a college president nationwide is now 6 1/2 years. The decade before, it was 8 1/2. 

At the time of publication, two PASSHE presidents are tied at seven years each for longest tenures in the system: Dr. Marcia Welsh of East Stroudsburg University, and Dr. Michael Driscoll of Indiana University of Pennsylvania. They both took office in July 2012. 

With the average tenure of university presidents decreasing and Edinboro being caught in higher-than-average turnover, The Spectator set out to discover what expenses a presidential search entails. The numbers used in this article are courtesy Right-To-Know Law request forms, which The Spectator submitted to PASSHE and EU. For clarity, this article will focus on expenses related to searches conducted at Edinboro between the years 2010-2019.  

How a search is funded

To understand the spending discussed here, we must first understand where that money comes from. In searches conducted at PASSHE institutions, universities are granted a sum of money from the state system to use for locating a president. 

According to Section D of PASSHE Board of Governors, Policy 1983-13-A, which details the process for recommending presidential appointment, the funds granted by PASSHE to the university are used to: “Reimburse a university for the cost of the professional service fee imposed by the presidential search consulting firm.” Plus, “funds from the System Reserve shall be used to reimburse the Office of the Chancellor for reasonable expenses related to candidates and spousal/partner travel to interview with the chancellor and the Board of Governors.”  

Angela Burrows, vice president for marketing and communications at EU, further clarified this use. 

“The state system reimburses the university for the cost of the search firm and the cost of candidate travel to and from Harrisburg to meet with the chancellor and the board of governors. Just an FYI, in the past, airport interviews were conducted with the candidates in the initial stages of the search process. Now, those early interviews are conducted via Zoom (a video conferencing tool).”  

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, an airport interview is, “an initial interview for a senior administrative position conducted at an airport hotel not too far from the campus in question.”

Burrows explained that the university pushed for Zoom, or a similar technology, versus these airport interviews, in order to reduce the cost of covering hotel rooms, reimbursing gas, providing food and more.

In the three presidential searches taking place over the past nine years at EU, the state system reimbursed $40,000 for the search that resulted in Wollman’s hiring; $84,769 for the search the resulted in Walker’s hiring; and $84,150 for the search that resulted in Huang. The total cost of these searches was: $136,645 (Wollman), $147,121.37 (Walker), and $111,809.71 (Huang). 

Simple analysis of the numbers suggests that the PASSHE Board of Governors (BOG) has increased the amount of funding that they provide to universities, meaning that less of the bill is being footed on the campus end.

David Pidgeon, Right-To-Know request officer for PASSHE, said the following about the increase in funding on the part of the state system.

“Presidential search is among the most important endeavors a university and the State System undertake, so what you see is a reflection of our commitment to helping a university find qualified candidates who can fill that leadership role on behalf of students and stakeholders.”

However, this change has forced the BOG to pull from reserves. According to notes from the July 10, 2019 BOG meeting, the university success committee (a sub committee of the BOG), reported an estimated $159,000 that it had to pull from system reserves in order to cover the cost of the presidential searches at Edinboro and Mansfield. They also gave $67,000 to Mansfield to renovate the president’s official residence, along with additional funds granted for the Chancellor Daniel Greenstein search. In total, the state system had to take an estimated $208,900 out of system reserves (in BOG meeting notes these figures are listed as tentative). 

Coming back to EU, this means that the university paid the following for each of the searches out of their operating budget: $96,645 (Wollman), $62,352.37 (Walker), and $27,659.71 (Huang). The increase in PASSHE funding can explain the decrease in Edinboro spending from Wollman’s search to the most recent one. 

Burrows stated that the university foots its end of the presidential search cost bill by pulling funds that once again, “come out of the operating budget.”

A further examination of expense spreadsheets revealed that the major areas of search spending can be broken down into three sections:  

The Firms

Traditionally, a portion of university presidential searches are conducted by firms that specialize in certain reports and the recruitment of candidates from across the country. According to Section C of the PASSHE Board of Governor’s policy on presidential searches: “The chair of the (respective university’s) Presidential Search Committee shall select a consulting firm, from a presidential search consulting firm list maintained by the chancellor, to (a) undertake a university leadership needs assessment and (b) assist the committee and the chancellor in conduct[ing] of the search process.”   

Whenever a university begins the presidential search process, one of the first things they must do is choose a firm from the list of 20 that the chancellor maintains. Once the firm is chosen, the university enters into a contract with them. Pidgeon described what happens from there.

“The system reimburses the university for the consultant fees and candidate travel expenses for the final interview with the Board of Governors, as well as background checks and degree verification expenses. Other expenses related to the search are paid for by the university.”

The university pays for line items such as additional food, travel to the university, hotels and other miscellaneous fees.

Pidgeon talked another aspect of the search firm contract. He explained that the firms charge is a minimum payment of the candidate’s first-year salary, plus expenses. “The exact fee the consultant gets varies firm to firm, but about 30 percent of the first-year salary is standard.” 

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, university presidents earned $428,250 on average in 2015. That was a 7% increase from the year before, according to The Wall-Street Journal. Edinboro, by comparison, is paying Huang $252,450 in annual salary, according to Pennwatch.pa.gov, a tool that lists the pay of state employees in Pennsylvania. 

The consulting service fee paid to Greenwood Asher for the 2012 search that ended with Wollman was $75,000. The fee paid again to Greenwood Asher for the 2016 search that resulted in Walker was $109,130.93. Finally, the fee paid to Witt and Kieffer for the 2019 search that resulted in Huang was $89,260. Of that latter search cost, $5,110 was spent on the presidential prospectus, which detailed what EU was looking for in its next leader. 

Travel  

Firms are not the only expense that PASSHE and universities must bear in the process of searching for a new president. With searches often spanning the entire nation, candidates could be flown in for on-campus interviews and to meet the respective campus communities. Here is the breakdown of EU candidate travel expenses by search year:  

2012: $18.704.44 

2016: $23,878.52 

2019: $13,522.23 

In the case of Huang, there were four finalists who came to campus and had their travel and lodging paid for. These candidates were housed in local hotels like Comfort Inn and Nick’s Place. 

Importantly, the travel expenses listed also includes consultant travel (covered by the state system). Take the 2019 search, for example: $10,987 out of the $13,522 total was attributed to Witt/Kieffer. Simply put, EU does not pay for any travel attributed to the search firms, only travel of members of the presidential search committee, and any travel that presidential finalists make to the campus.  

One standout number was a $19,188.31 amount listed under Hyatt Hotel in Pittsburgh, for the Walker search. According to Burrows, “This figure included hotel charges ($7,620) for search committee members, candidates and search consultants; multiple meals for 33 people ($11,367); [and] miscellaneous expenses, including phone and audio-visual support ($1,205).” She added that, “Because we are a nonprofit, we received a discount on these fees.”  

Food

The next biggest line on the bill for search costs was food. When candidates arrive on campus, the university can end up covering the cost of meals and catering for various events and meetings that candidates are expected to attend with university constituents. A summary of food costs for each search are as follows:  

2012: $5,723.67 

2016: $7,201.05 

2019: $5,898.90

For on-campus events, Chartwells has taken care of catering in the listed years. For off-campus events, the university again receives a discount due to their nonprofit status, according to Burrows. 

What does this all mean? 

Edinboro University has spent $186,656 out-of-pocket to fund the searches of three presidents, the first two of which stayed for less than five years.  

Ken Mash, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties (APSCUF), talked about the topic with The Pittsburgh Review-Tribune.

“We think there is too much money being spent, and we don’t generally feel we have much of a say.” 

He continued: “We certainly seem to have a number of campuses where the presidency is a revolving door, and that’s not necessarily healthy.”

PASSHE has used search firms for the last 20 years, according to BOG policy. In an interview with The Pittsburgh Review-Tribune, former state system spokesman Kenn Marshall said: “I believe our feeling is the firms help us to identify, attract and recruit the best possible pool of candidates. We always conduct national searches, and it is important to cast a wide net to ensure you have the largest possible number of qualified candidates to choose from.” 

However, these candidates are not staying. In an interview with The Spectator early on in EU’s 2019 presidential search, APSCUF Edinboro University Chapter President Marc Sylvester said that stability among presidents, at least at Edinboro, can be partly attributed to the fact that many of them are “first-time presidents.” 

“(We need) someone who wants to invest in us, not someone who is along their career path and this is a stopping point,” he stated as something that APSCUF was looking for in a new leader. 

PASSHE, meanwhile, recognizes that the turnover rate of presidents in the system is high. In a statement to The Pittsburgh-Post Gazette after the resignation of Walker, then interim chancellor Karen Whitney said, “Strong stable leadership as a team is the most important thing,” in keeping presidents. 

Newly elected Chancellor Greenstein reflected that sentiment in his strategic system redesign report, where he said the following: “The manner at which presidential appointments are framed (fixed terms of contract, no opportunity to return to faculty in a tenured position) weaken the ability of presidents to take bold steps, and make strong candidates hard to recruit and retain.” The system redesign strategy is still in its planning stages, however, this statement might speak to bigger changes in the way that presidential searches are conducted in order to address the turnover rate that the PASSHE state system as a whole is facing. 

As Edinboro University enters into Huang’s tenure, his first interview with campus media included aims of breaking those longevity issues. 

“Leadership and an institution has to be a good marriage, like a husband and wife; they both have to want to stay married, [and] in order for a president to stay long, the campus must agree, and vice versa, so I’m willing to make a long-term commitment. I’m not looking for a new presidency.” 

But if he did move on, will we be looking at another six-figure bill?

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