Don't let Towson sit idle

April 24, 2002|By James L. Fisher

THEY'RE AT it again.

The presidential succession plan offered by the Board of Regents is either another slap at a distinguished university or another uninformed move by the regents.

Exactly a week after arbitrarily firing Towson University's president without campus consultation for what deserved no more than a slap on the wrist, the regents chairman said, "Whatever happens to Towson in the future will involve the Towson community." Shades of the Road to Damascus.

But this amazing conversion aside, the reported plan for replacing the president is antithetical to conventional wisdom.

The regents have appointed an "acting interim president" (which is about as neutered as a title could be).

According to the plan, the "acting interim" will serve until a regent subcommittee solicits nominations for an "interim president." Then the "interim president" will serve between "six months and two years." Finally, after the "interim" is found, the regents will begin to search for a permanent president for the simmering university. What a plan!

The very term "interim leader" is an oxymoron; an "acting interim" is a double negative. A university is effectively stalled during a presidential interim, and some even go backward. It must also be noted that no university has been effectively led by a board or a long-term interim, and there is no record of there ever having been another "acting interim."

What then should be done?

First, a good consultant could find a worthy interim in less than a week. There are countless retired, still vigorous, uninvested presidents outside Maryland who would be happy to come to Towson and serve, as was the case last year at Villa Julie and the year before at Hood.

At least a half- dozen names immediately come to mind. There is even a national registry for interim presidents. Or the board could remove the "acting" from the current "acting interim." Or extend a due pacifier to the Towson community and let them select their own interim.

But the real action is in the appointment of a permanent president for the now headless and aimless university. Towson needs to keep moving rather than continue in its present state of anxiety and uncertainty for the next umpteen months or even years.

Now anybody who knows anything at all about presidential searches knows that the shorter the time frame the better the chances of finding good candidates. While the average search is conducted over a seven-month-plus period, the best searches are conducted between four and five months. The keys to a good search are: the right committee, a good consultant, a short time frame, reference checking and confidentiality.

Towson has only recently completed an exhaustive search and, according to reports, that committee was a good one. It essentially could be reconstituted, and a new consultant appointed -- hopefully the same one that was able to convince Brit Kirwan to return to Maryland. That was a brilliant move. Mr. Kirwan is widely recognized as one of the most outstanding leaders in the country.

There are also other "for-profit" search firms with impressive records that might be considered, such as R.H. Perry. Many believe that the "not-for-profits" tend to be more process- than results-oriented, and Towson needs results.

With this design or a reasonable facsimile, Towson could have another permanent president by September and the university could continue on course without staying mired in a swamp of indecision and brewing conflict.

As for the next permanent president, because of the state of things, he or she should probably be a leader who has been able to bring change without undue conflict.

While all candidates should be considered, the person should probably have lots of experience and Towson should be the last stop in an otherwise distinguished career. To attract a really good person, at least a five-year rolling contract should be offered. This means that while the regents could fire the president at any time, they would be bound to pay off the full five years of the contract. Otherwise, a really good person could not be attracted and the new president would be as well off as a "permanent acting interim."

If the regents do not have a permanent president for Towson by early fall, they should all be hung out to dry. They have a full staff to handle the administrative details and there is simply no conceivable excuse for the plan that was presented. Get on with it, regents; 88,000 alumni will be watching.

James L. Fisher is president emeritus of Towson University and president emeritus of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

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