The search is on
UL System president speaks out on the task of finding a new president for McNeese State University
BY MIKE JONES AMERICAN PRESS
Randy Moffett, UL System president, was recently in Lake Charles to receive input from the public for the search to replace retiring McNeese State University President Robert Hebert.
While here, he answered questions from the American Press editorial board about the search process and about the problems facing higher education with state budget cuts.
The UL System comprises McNeese, Grambling, Louisiana Tech, Nicholls State, Nothwestern State, Southeastern Louisiana, ULLafayette and the ULMonroe. Here are the questions and answers.
When do you think you’ll have a candidate picked to replace Hebert?
Moffett: We’re hoping in the case of the McNeese president to be able to find a replacement by the end of June, maybe earlier. We aren’t bound by a timeline.
Our goal is to find the best candidate but with Dr. Hebert’s pending retirement gives us a working target. We advertise nationally in higher education and minority publications. We’re in the final stages of contracting with a national search firm. We always use a national search firm to help identify candidates. Candidates can either apply to us or they can apply to the search firm. The search committee’s task is to start reviewing candidates. We don’t have a specified target. I generally recommend a max of five, preferably three to four. We will narrow that list. We’ll be back here to interview semifinalists and that process is open to the public. In fact there’s a public question session. Then there are a series of meetings with vice presidents, faculty senate, student leaders.
We will work with the chamber to bring in business leaders and each of those groups will have a chance to meet with the candidate. Then the committee has the arduous task of who to recommend to the board, two to four (finalists). Then the board interviews the candidates and makes the final selection. That’s a quick overview of how the process works. We really want input from the community.
Do you have a ballpark deadline for sending in applications?
It’s really kind of a rolling target. It’ll be about a six-week process. But if we don’t have anyone we’re really interested in we’ll extend the deadline. So it is a rolling target.
How do you answer people who say it is going to be the pick of the governor, influential alums or board members?
You can never eliminate rumors and conspiracy theories. The intention is to get a broad pool of candidates. I think you’ll hear loud and clear throughout the process we’re looking for the best candidate.
This takes time and effort on the part of the board. Where we end up, we hope, is with a candidate the community is solidly behind. I think that is the most important thing and I’ve said that to the board.
We want the person who is “selected” to win this job because it is a very difficult job.
The Lake Charles Port Board recently had a situation where a candidate that had been selected for new port director withdrew. What would you do if you had a similar situation?
As we start with the process we immediately ask applicants for credentials. We do background checks. There’s no fail-safe system but we do everything we can. In coming in they have a very good understanding of the ramifications of the job and the financial conditions.
But if something happens and a candidate withdraws, I think the board has two options. They can go to someone else in the pool or they can start over.
Will all applicants names be publicized?
Of course Louisiana is a sunshine state. If they apply directly to us, at that point they become public. But there are candidates that will go through the search firm until they are absolutely sure they want the job.
Higher education and health care always seem to bear the brunt of budget cuts. What can university presidents and boards do to assure a more reliable funding sources for higher education?
The governor introduced some legislation last June, statutory revisions, to try to free up the ability to make reductions in the overall budget. That historically has been a problem for the state.
Our (former) board president, Dr. Clausen, supported that legislation last year. I think we have to keep with the message that higher education, health care, and elementary and secondary education are things that keep moving the state forward. We, in the UL System, long for the ability to control our tuition.
We’re one of three or four states that have a two-thirds requirement (to increase tuition) and I understand from a legislative standpoint you look around the nation and see some states raising tuition 20 or 30 percent. But I think you could find the right balance.
I think there are ways to have tuition indexed in some fashion. If you look at tuition per student we’re very low (compared with the rest of the nation). I think we have to keep pushing the message of the value of higher education. If we don’t, I think higher education will always be at risk in tough times.
Severe cuts are coming in the 2010-2011 budget. What does a university president do in that situation?
When we went through the budget cuts in the ’80s, I was a department head. We initially cut around the margins — reduce travel, reduce supplies, reduce equipment purchases, took money out of maintenance — that’s what I mean about the margins.
In the ’80s we just didn’t spend money on deferred maintenance and we got behind and you never catch up. We have renewed some programs already in our system but we took out 11 or 12 programs last year.
We had an infusion of money in ’07. We went out and did those things you thought you needed to do when you didn’t have the money. That has brought in more faculty, reduced class sizes because that has an impact on retention and graduation rate. You put some money into support personnel, your advisory services, and now you’re having to recoup that rather rapidly.
So 74 percent of your budget, on average, is tied up in personnel. You had to make those changes around the margin. I think all of them (university presidents) have a plan A and a plan B and are pretty close to having to release that plan. Now they’re going to have decisions to make on what academic programs I keep, what are my cost issues.
So they are trying to maintain a positive vision for moving forward. They are trying to keep morale high. They’ve got employees that are looking over their shoulder, worried they won’t have a job if the person gets let go the next day. They’re having to make strategic budgetary decisions, hard personnel decisions, and at the same time trying to maintain those core programs that are essential to that institution.
The streamlining commission made some recommendations on consolidation of higher education boards. Where do you stand on that?
If you look at governance in this country, about 50 percent of the states have multiple higher education boards. Others have versions of a single board.
If you go back and read the PAR (Public Affairs Research) report in March or April, they covered that very well. I think they talked about there is not a single way to do that. During the PERC (Postsecondary Education Review Commission) meetings, that was talked about, and it has culminated in a recommendation for four-year and a two-year boards. I personally and professionally believe there is no best way to do governance. I think finances play an important role in the success of campuses. You have to have the resources to do the things you want to do. In this recommendation of two boards I am concerned there is no recommendation of a coordination board.