Uphill climb ahead in search for Penn State president
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In ordinary times, replacing ousted President Graham Spanier -- whose intellectual sharpness, popularity and longevity as Penn State University's top administrator made him a legend in his own right -- would be a difficult job.
Now, the 32-member board of trustees faces the extraordinary task of choosing a new leader for an institution in the midst of a scandal that has deeply shaken its confidence.
But experts and insiders say the new leader will have the opportunity to reshape Penn State and perhaps to alter a culture that some have described as insular -- a criticism leveled after word broke that two top administrators were indicted for allegedly keeping quiet about a football coach sexually assaulting a boy in a campus locker room shower.
"Is somebody willing to stand up to and take on the athletic department and institute the reform that is necessary to make sure this never happens again?" asked Don Heller, a senior scientist and professor of education at the Penn State Center for the Study of Higher Education. "A president can come in and demonstrate leadership and help to heal some of the psychic wounds that the students and the faculty and alumni have been experiencing."
Mr. Spanier has not been charged, but two top university officials -- athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz -- were indicted. Prosecutors say they failed to report the 2002 locker room assault and later provided false information to a grand jury. Jerry Sandusky, the former football coach, is charged with sexually assaulting eight boys, two of them on campus.
"I think all of us want to figure out how to move forward," said John Cheslock, an associate professor of education at the school's Center for the Study of Higher Education who studies higher education economics. "Penn State on lots of fronts was really doing extremely well, and we can return to an upward trajectory so we can make contributions to all parts of society."
For now, former Provost Rodney Erickson is president, an appointment that inspired confidence among many faculty, Mr. Cheslock said.
Those familiar with the process of choosing presidents at public universities say the board of trustees will appoint a search committee with representatives from several constituencies -- faculty, staff, students, alumni and the board itself. From there, the committee will formulate a job description, a task that is often done with the help of a professional consultant.
Job descriptions can be up to several pages long and can be the subject of a lot of contention in a search committee, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president for the American Council on Education. Those capable of handling the job are few and far between, said Mr. Hartle, who joked that the standards are so high that they should include "the ability to walk on water."
The scandal will likely shape what kind of candidate the committee wants.
"They're obviously going to look for someone who has a reputation for being able to rebuild or build the reputation of an institution, a university," Mr. Heller said.
And, in an era of declining state financial support, the new president will have to be an effective fundraiser, Mr. Cheslock said, and will have to be skilled at rebuilding trust among donors and boosters -- quickly.
"People want to believe in Penn State," he said. "How quickly can you give them reason to believe in Penn State?"
Often with the help of a private search firm, the committee will identify a large pool of candidates, sometimes up to 200, said Shelly Weiss Storbeck, the managing partner of Storbeck/Pimentel & Associates, a search firm In Media, Pa., that has handled presidential searches for several large universities.
Finalists are heavily vetted for everything from campus scandals to bad credit to DUI's and then are interviewed on campus. The search process takes about six months, Ms. Storbeck said. The board of trustees will ultimately choose Mr. Spanier's successor, though it may take up to a year for a new candidate to take the post.
Whether to choose an outsider or someone with ties to the institution "will be a major decision," Mr. Cheslock said, especially since many have charged that insularity contributed to the scandal.
That insularity is at least in part fed by a tendency for the school to elevate insiders to top leadership roles, Mr. Heller said. Mr. Spanier, who left the University of Nebraska when he was appointed president in 1995, had previously been a professor and administrator at Penn State.
"The insularity is a good in some settings and bad in some settings. In some ways it's been very helpful to have these close connections and this longevity," Mr. Cheslock said. "But in this situation it may have contributed to what transpired."
Mr. Hartle said choosing an inside candidate has its obvious benefits. Those with ties to the university are more likely to have the institutional know-how to run a behemoth like Penn State, which educates more than 90,000 students on 24 campuses.
"The big advantage of an inside candidate is that it's far easier to hit the ground running -- they understand intimately how the institution works," he said.
But in the wake of a scandal, an outside candidate may be better suited, said C. Peter Magrath, the interim president of Binghamton University in New York. Mr. Magrath stepped in as the interim after the president of West Virginia University was ousted by scandal in 2008.
"The great disadvantage of the insider is that maybe they know the culture too well ... to poke around or raise questions," he said.
He emphasized the importance of the new leader unapologetically examining what led to the breakdown at Penn State and instituting reform, as he did at West Virginia in 2008. A new president could also represent a de-emphasis on athletics in the school's brand, he said.
"Football has been king as it has been at so many places," he said. "The new president and the interim [have to] make it clear that Penn State is about education, the discovery of knowledge, the application of knowledge."
First Published November 14, 2011 12:00 am