A Little Truth to Power

I need to offer a second posting about the process about the search for the FGCU presidency.

The process took a bizarre turn, when the Board of Trustees convened on Saturday to determine which of the three finalists would they tender an offer. Conventional wisdom had it that Dr. Karen Holbrook, the just retired president of The Ohio State University, was the favored candidate, and rightly so.

After the morning interviews with the three finalists, there was a public forum component of the meeting, where several members of the audience were permitted to offer opinions. The first championed Dr. Holbrook. The second was a faculty member who wanted an internal candidate to be reconsidered as a finalist; this caused a little hoo-hah among the trustees, some of whom clearly favored bringing back this candidate.

At this point, Ben Hill Griffin III, grandson of Orange king Ben Hill Griffin (and cousin to Katherine Harris, yes, that Katherine Harris), and who donated land and money for the university, said that none of the finalists “fit the needs” of the university, that FGCU “deserved better” and could do better. He suggested that the search could start over, or at least, reconsider some of the other semifinalists. He made it absolutely clear than none of the three finalists were what he called a worthy fit.

Mind you, Griffin is a big fish in Florida, but he isn't on the Board of Trustees, and his exposure to the candidates, as I understand it, was relegated to a foundation fĂȘte the night before and to whatever he saw during the morning interviews. I'll assume he was sincere. But his statement was reckless and destructive and disrespectful. Had the trustees acted on his challenge, who on earth of any quality would want to apply for the presidency at FGCU? This is what he says about the president of the largest university in the United States? And two other candidates who have exceptional records of accomplishment?

All of this controversy, by the way, was being reported blow by blow by a couple of bloggers for the local newspapers. About twenty minutes after these statements by Griffin were noted in the blogs, a message was delivered to the Chair of the Board stating that Dr. Holbrook had withdrawn her candidacy.

I'm conjecturing here, but it's apparent Dr. Holbrook withdrew in face of this alarming statement, which basically would derail her (and the other candidates') efforts to work as a fundraiser and chief executive for the university. Even one trustee said that they did take on a more adversarial posture in questioning her, explaining that she had far “greater experience” than the other candidates—actually, Dr. Bradshaw had been a university president longer than Dr. Holbrook had served. Because she and her husband have a home in northern Florida, the trustees took great pains to nail down where she would live if elected president. Finally, the trustees also queried her about “how long” she would stay at FGCU. This troubling line of questioning accurately reflected the trustees’ general skepticism, at best, and insecurity, at worst. The other candidates were not so directly challenged about their potential tenure, and no other candidate was asked about their living choices. This discrepancy is troubling.

I need to say that Dr. Holbrook was my second personal choice, and I regret that she was treated so shabbily. The university was lucky to have someone of her stature to condescend to consider the presidency. In effect, during the final 24 hours of this interview process, Dr. Holbrook received a remarkable display of disrespect from her prospective “superiors.” Simply, Dr. Holbrook rejected FGCU, and I take that as a sign of her own basic self-respect. I have also withdrawn as a finalist for a university post, after witnessing boorish politics within the college. It’s about recognizing that the situation is beneath you.

(Later, after the final decision was announced, a reporter asked Griffin if he felt responsibility for Dr. Holbrook’s withdrawal. He answered by laughing, “If she can’t stand the heat, she’d better get out of the kitchen.” I dare say that Dr. Holbrook probably has endured far more hellish kitchens in her career. It had nothing to do with the grilling, but the transparent lack of support, humility, and good will.)

Amid this confusion over the announcement of Dr. Holbrook’s withdrawal, a motion was made and defeated to include the FGCU internal candidate. With that, the Board moved quickly, and unpredictably from my distant vantage, and voted unanimously to elect Wilson Bradshaw president. Earlier in the session, before Dr. Holbrook's withdrawal, a few trustees had expressed support for the other finalists, not Bradshaw. So this reversal was quick and astonishing. What is heartening about the Board of Trustees is that they did reject Ben Hill Griffin’s astonishing suggestion to go back and review other candidates—the three finalists were indeed the best candidates available, each of whom represented a significant step forward in the university’s maturity.

While I am happy with the end result, I can't say that I take much pride in how the whole search was conducted. The Board could have voted for Dr. Bradshaw (I’m not sure if this would’ve been the case had Dr. Holbrook remained in contention—we’ll never know that point), but without having to indulge in adversarial interview tricks that only harm FGCU’s reputation. To reap class, you have to sow class. It is that simple.

About Dr. Bradshaw, I am confident that he will prove his own man as the leader of my university. The evidence, at least in my book, is that FGCU needs to prove itself worthy of his stewardship.

Finally, I should make it clear that I am a full professor at FGCU, but I do not have tenure. I realize this post could get me in a little hot water, but so be it. I am posting something I have spoke openly about among colleagues, and I am expressing my concerns because I want FGCU to be a great university. I do believe Dr. Bradshaw will work to have us achieve more as a university, and I am game to work with him toward the same end.


Anonymous said…
Thank you for posting this. (I hope it doesn't get you in any hot water.)