Hey UK, a Little Neighborly Advice?

by Amanda Holt

The news came as a surprise to many in Lexington and around the state — Dr. Lee Todd Jr. will retire as president of the University of Kentucky in June 2011. This news comes only months after Transylvania successfully completed its own presidential transition. While UK probably doesn’t need help with its search, having done it many times before, it just might be able to learn a thing or two from the successes of its small liberal arts neighbor down the road.

Transylvania’s presidential search resulted in our acquiring a president who shares our values and priorities and who has already made great strides toward improving our campus. If the University of Kentucky wishes to find such a leader, it may consider emulating Transylvania’s approach to the presidential search process.
First, before the search even begins, it is necessary to clearly identify priorities and problems. At Transylvania, for example, priorities included continuing our history of a massive endowment, improving our sustainability and diversity initiatives, and updating our campus technologically.

Of course, to accurately identify these problems and priorities, as many campus voices as possible need to be heard to ensure that they are the campus’s priorities and not just the administration’s priorities. Moreover, hearing more voices means becoming aware of problems that may have otherwise gone unnoticed by the administration, which is often distanced from the academic side of campus at a larger school like UK. This is exactly the approach Transylvania took to begin our process, and UK would do well to follow suit.

Once priorities and problems are clearly defined, it is crucial to form a representative search committee, which assures the continued involvement of every facet of the campus community in the decision-making process. Such an inclusive approach to the search process ensures that the newly chosen president will not be in contention with any particular campus population, and that all those populations, be they faculty, students or staff, will be relatively satisfied with the choice.

According to Cheryl Truman in an article on the Lexington Herald-Leader’s website, some UK faculty members have expressed displeasure with Todd in recent years. No part of a college campus functions well when another part is displeased. That said, involving everyone in the presidential search, as Transy did this past year, will be vital to UK to assure that the concerns of all campus groups are given appropriate consideration.

If UK could take only one lesson away from Transylvania’s approach, it would be this inclusiveness and openness of communication at every step of the process, from initial planning to committee formation to decision time. The actions of a university president affect everyone connected to that campus. Consequently, everyone connected to that campus deserves to be informed throughout the process and to be involved as much as is feasible.

Openness entails being cooperative with campus and local media, opening some of the search-committee meetings to students and other campus-affiliated nonmembers, allowing students to meet prospective candidates and to see their vitae, and finally listening to feedback and taking it seriously.

UK can also learn from our shortcomings. The biggest disappointment in Transy’s search process was its putting such a heavy emphasis on improving diversity on campus yet not including a woman or a non-Caucasian among its final candidates for president. There are bound to be plenty of qualified applicants from these underrepresented groups, and I would encourage UK to consider seeking a more diverse group of finalists than we did.

Transylvania is already reaping the benefits with our new president. If UK follows our model of careful planning, inclusiveness and openness, but at the same time learns from our mistakes, it can reap those same benefits with the best replacement for Todd it can possibly find.


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