Welcome Back: Professionals speculate on progress of Pitt’s chancellor search

By Danielle Fox / Staff Writer

The forums are over. The applications are in.

But the Chancellor Search Committee has a long way to go before it announces Pitt’s next leader.

This journey will happen behind closed doors. The research has entered a quiet stage, and Pitt spokesman Ken Service said he would not comment on progress in the quest to find Chancellor Mark Nordenberg’s replacement aside from the fact that a new chancellor will be in place by Aug. 1. Service would not comment what stage the search is in, but according to search firm experts, the next steps are to vet the candidates and whittle down the list of options.

Nordenberg formally announced his retirements plans in June 2013 to Pitt’s Board of Trustees. After 19 years as chancellor, Nordenberg will officially step down in August.

The search committee’s work with Storbeck/Pimentel and Associates, an executive search firm based in the Los Angeles area that Pitt hired to guide the committee, must remain confidential to retain candidates who cannot publicly display interest in the job, Service said.

“There are no specific details that are being released at this point,” Service said.

Two students sit among the 26 members of the search committee. Amelia Brause, a senior and former Student Government Board member, and David Gau, president of the Graduate and Professional Student Government Board, represent the undergraduate and graduate student bodies.

In a letter to the editor published in The Pitt News on Nov. 6, Gau urged students to contact him and voice their thoughts on the search. 

To date, Gau said, no one has contacted him about the letter. 

On the public website about the chancellor search, people can submit responses to a survey and comments about the search to the committee. Service said 1,033 individuals have responded to the survey and that the information “was consistent with the information that surfaced in the Search Forums.”

While Pitt will not release details about its search, professionals in the search firm industry were willing to discuss how universities typically search for their next presidents and chancellors.

Christopher Hunt, the president of HSZ Media, a company based in Greenwich, Conn., that publishes news and the industry report for the search firm industry, said about 3,000 to 4,000 search firms are active in the United States.

These search firms fit two separate categories: retained or contingency, according to Hunt. 

Retained search firms work exclusively with the organization to fill a top-level position. The client pays these firms a retainer to assist in the search. In contrast, multiple contingency firms try to fill the position. The client only pays the firm that succeeds.

About 1,000 to 1,500 of the firms are retained search firms, such as Storbeck/Pimentel and Associates. Hunt said retained firms serve all institutions, including higher education, health care, business, nonprofits, scientific organizations and the government. 

Hunt said no two searches for university presidents or chancellors are alike, but they generally share certain features.

While Pitt has not released any information on candidates, Hunt said most firms that search for university chancellors would start out with a “long list” of 15 to 20 candidates. The firm typically whittles this list down to a “short list” of two to five candidates who visit the university to tour the campus and meet with faculty and staff.

While Pitt’s final list of candidates is currently unknown, Hunt said to expect a female candidate, a person of color, a candidate from within Pitt and someone from outside academia among the group of applicants who meet the criteria.

In a position profile released by the committee last October, Pitt outlined the definition of a likely candidate. Pitt wants candidates who have skill in leadership and “collaborative management,” use financial shrewdness to make academic decisions, advocacy and fundraising and can advance the University in research and academics.

Shelli Herman, president of Shelli Herman and Associates, Inc., an executive search firm based in Los Angeles, said that after candidates submit resumés, the search firm vets the candidates by hosting interviews and reviewing credentials.

Candidates must undergo background checks and security clearances, and Hunt said by the time the candidates are presented by the search firm, their backgrounds have been “thoroughly canvassed.”

Herman said secrecy becomes a challenge during candidates’ visits to campus. 

“[The candidates] are out there talking to students and staff and faculty. How can that remain truly confidential?” Herman said.

Firms work to keep information confidential by keeping it on private websites that can only be accessed by the firm and the committee, according to Hunt. 

Storbeck/Pimentel and Associates would not comment on the search or if they use such a website, but according to notes from a Florida A&M University presidential search qualifications and sub-committee meeting in 2012, Alberto Pimentel, managing partner of the firm, and Will Gates, a partner, told the sub-committee that their firm utilizes such a website.  

“The search committee is given a secure username and password, and they can log on and see what candidates are being interviewed and any notes concerning the interview process,” he said.

Although Pitt’s search resembles former searches and other universities’ searches, there are slight differences.

With 26 members, Pitt’s search committee is larger than most of those formed for private-sector searches. Those typically include two to five members, according to Hunt. 

Hunt said Pitt’s search committee could be larger because it is for a university and includes members of the Board of Trustees, but Hunt said he has never seen a committee with so many members.

“It’s really up to the university to make certain that having so many members doesn’t bog down the process,” Hunt said.

If the next chancellor’s identity is not announced until Aug. 1, the duration of the search will be about one year.

“It’s uncommon for a search to last that long, but it all depends.” Herman said. “I’ve seen searches that move really quickly, and then I’ve seen searches that take a year and be perfectly on track.”

Hunt said universities determine the level of student engagement in their searches.

“The search firm doesn’t block out the student body or anybody from the process as long as the college makes a provision for them being part of the process,” Hunt said.

The game has stayed much the same over the years, but Hunt said the players have changed.

“It used to be that the president of the university or chancellor came right out of academia,” he said. “It would be a former president of another university or someone who might be in No. 2 position, like a provost at another university, who might be brought over to run the whole show at this university.”

Hunt said typical candidates used to be older, white men from within academia. Recently, universities have been selecting more women, people of color and former leaders in the private sector.

“It was important to bring in leaders from other industries, who bring in a new fresh skill set into the mix,” Hunt said. “Many colleges are run like companies. They are big, big operations, and you need to someone who has those skills.”

Pitt’s 1995 chancellor search committee thought outside the box of academia and the private sector and attempted to tap Colin Powell, a retired Army General who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989 to 1993, for the job.

Jim Roddey, a Pitt trustee who led the 1995 search, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1996 that the University had reached out to Powell, who reportedly told Pitt not to consider him a candidate.

Some candidates do not come from another school or the business world. Pitt’s next leader might already be roaming the Cathedral halls.

Hunt said the best candidate for the job might be from the University, but it is important to conduct an intensive search to compare an internal candidate to outside competition to make sure he or she is the best choice.

“[Internal candidates] are just as much in the running as the outsider for the job,” Hunt said.