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July 8, 2010

What it takes to select a provost

—Randy Juhl, Chair of the provost search committee

—Randy Juhl, Chair of the provost search committee

Selecting a new provost after only a six-month search is unusual for such a high academic position, said search committee chair Randy Juhl.

Likewise, the fact that a provost search has not been necessary at Pitt in 16 years is outside the norm, Juhl said, citing a 2009 survey of chief academic officers by the American Council on Education that found their length of time in the position averaged 4.7 years.

Provost James V. Maher announced in November 2009 his intention to step down. The 21-member search committee was named in January (see Jan. 21 University Times) and first met in February.

With the assistance of Dallas-based academic search firm R. William Funk and Associates, by the end of spring term the committee pared an initial list of more than 160 candidates to eight who were invited for “airport” interviews, and then to six who were recommended to the chancellor in May.

The speedy completion of the search was influenced by several factors, said Juhl, who served on search committees in the 1990s for the chancellor and the senior vice chancellor for Health Sciences positions. Much has changed since that time, when communication was handled by mail and confidential papers kept in a locked closet that had to be visited in person by committee members. “Lots of time was spent handling paperwork,” Juhl said.

Now with the advantage of electronic communications, members could search a password-protected database to review candidates’ backgrounds from wherever they were.

“It allow you to focus more on the candidates than the process,” Juhl said.

In addition, a forum in which Pitt’s four regional campuses participated via teleconference enabled the University-wide community to be engaged in the process without the need for separate visits to each campus. (See March 18 University Times.)

Committee members’ cooperation and commitment to the task also played a role. Juhl said he found it rewarding to see how quickly the 21-member group of faculty, staff and students — most of whom did not know one another and typically did not work together — came together to tackle a huge task for which there was no recent experience at Pitt.

“We did feel the pressure,” he said, noting that the committee sought to find someone who not only was qualified, but who fit in well with the stable and successful leadership team already in place.

Juhl characterized the search as more positive than many. “It was not an emergency situation,” he said, noting that the issue was “not how do we fix negatives, but how do we maintain momentum?”

Pitt’s reputation generated interest. “We did not have to sell anybody on the attractiveness of the University of Pittsburgh as a place to work,” Juhl said.

Still, the task was difficult. “The pressure is almost worse when things are going well,” he said. “You don’t want to screw it up.”

The initial pool of more than 160 candidates, about half of whom came from the search firm, was larger than Juhl expected.

The pool included a small number of internal candidates, he said, declining to cite an exact count except to say it would take “less than one hand.”

Juhl said the field of candidates was diverse: crossing genders, ethnicities, disciplines and geographic regions. Not all candidates chose to reveal demographic information but, to the extent known, the pool included 39 women and 26 minority candidates, eight of whom were believed to be African American, Juhl said.

The first cut was made based on candidates’ experience at a similarly complex Association of American Universities (AAU) institution.

Of 55 active candidates, who both had serious reason to be considered and who had agreed to be considered, 10 were female and 17 were minority candidates, including four African Americans.

A closer look at the quality of the candidates’ AAU experience whittled the number to 30.

“Then it got tough,” Juhl said.

The list was narrowed further by looking more closely at the candidates’ home institutions, seeking those with experience in AAU schools most similar to Pitt. Faculty members on the committee were helpful in assisting with additional cuts, given their knowledge of various universities and sometimes even of the applicants themselves, he said.

Eight candidates were invited for airport interviews, but one was eliminated when an interview couldn’t be scheduled. (Juhl noted that interviews were conducted during Pitt’s commencement week, admittedly a busy time on academic calendars.)

“All eight were qualified to serve as provost at some university,” Juhl said. The committee’s job was to determine which one would be the best, he said.

Three of the seven who came for interviews were women; two were minority candidates, Juhl said. One of the seven was considered not to be a good fit; the remaining six  — a group that included two women and one minority candidate — were recommended for interviews with the chancellor and senior staff.

During a summary meeting with the chancellor, the search committee discussed the positives and negatives of each candidate.

“All six were qualified to do the job on paper,” Juhl said. “It was a matter of who was going to fit in best in the University and who was going to fit in best with the team.”

The final choice came down to Patricia E. Beeson and one external candidate.

Juhl said the new provost needed to be someone who understood the breadth of the University and who demonstrated an appreciation for disciplines other than his or her own.

“You have to be able to appreciate other people’s passions. One minute you may be discussing fourth-century Japanese armor and the next minute nanotechnology and the use of green steel,”  Juhl said. “The provost doesn’t need to know every detail but needs to show they understand the importance of the discipline in order to have the confidence of these people they’re supposed to lead.”

Communication skills and a broad background also were important. “In this position, it’s good that you go to the opera and enjoy a baseball game,” he said. The new provost also needed to be “somebody who can maintain the momentum forward and understand the challenges — not chasing faddish rabbits down a hole, but make sensible day-to-day decisions,” Juhl said.

Juhl noted that being an internal candidate carries with it both pluses and minuses. On the one hand, internal candidates have the inside track when it comes to familiarity with the institution. The downside is that anyone who has served in an administrative position likely has at some time made decisions “that probably aggravated somebody,” he said.

He noted that Beeson has a broad range of experience in dealing with varied academic disciplines, currently serving as the primary Provost office contact for the School of Arts and Sciences and Pitt’s business and engineering schools.

“That’s a pretty broad sweep on paper. And you can tell by talking with somebody if they’re interested,” Juhl said.

He said Beeson’s presentations showed an ability to analyze trends and how the University related to the wider academic world — skills that align with the Board of Trustees’ longstanding mandate to make measurable progress not only by improving the University but also rising in comparison with other institutions.

Juhl commended the qualifications of the candidates. “These were good people, all very accomplished in their discipline, their administrative achievement and potential.”

While both of the final candidates were strong, the chancellor ultimately chose Beeson.

Looking back at the conclusion of the process, Juhl said he realized it should come as no surprise that an internal candidate emerged as the new provost.

Given that many faculty members have national leadership credentials within their discipline, and given Pitt’s ranking among the nation’s top research universities, “We should expect we have people here who can do that job.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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