OPINION: Presidential search researchers say OU should take more transparent path following Gallogly exit

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OU President James Gallogly talks to a reporter in his office in Evans Hall Feb. 7.

Judith Wilde is Chief Operating Officer and Professor, and James Finkelstein is Professor Emeritus, in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. Wilde and Finkelstein have conducted research into a variety of presidential and executive searches at universities across the country.  

What now for the University, post-Gallogly?

The headline of the press release from the University of Oklahoma seemed to us to be a bit strange—"OU President Jim Gallogly Announces Plans to Retire.”  Like Mr. Gallogly, we are both baby boomers and doubt if anyone of our generation believes that he is really “retiring” from OU after serving as president for less than a year.  Given all of the well documented controversies he has faced since taking office, we would suggest that a more accurate headline would have been, “OU President Jim Gallogly Announces Resignation.”

Based on our research on presidential searches, the process that selected Mr. Gallogly set the stage for a failed presidency.  First, and most importantly, the OU Board of Regents insisted on what we have called a “secret search.” Until recently, most searches for the president of a public university were much more open.  Typically, while the names of candidates were protected during the early phases of the search process, once the search committee settled on a list of finalists, those names not only became public, but the candidates came to campus to meet with faculty, students, staff, alumni, and members of the larger community.  

In the last decade or so an increasing number of searches for these public executives have been conducted in total secrecy—often with only one “finalist” being named in order to meet the letter, but not the spirit, of a state’s open meetings statutes.  Where no such laws exist, sometimes there is simply an announcement of the new president after the appointment is finalized. This change corresponds with the nearly complete outsourcing of presidential searches to executive search firms, sometimes called “headhunters,” that has occurred over the past 50 years.  In another of our studies, we have documented the use of these firms in managing presidential searches, which has grown from less than 2 percent in 1975 to more than 92 percent in 2015.

There is no empirical evidence to support a claim often made by executive search firms that secret searches yield a bigger and/or better pool of candidates, or result in hiring a better president.  In fact, we would argue that the resignation of Mr. Gallogly is evidence that secret searches can have disastrous results.

A second factor contributing to this failed presidency was the Regents’ decision to hire what is called a “non-traditional candidate”—someone with no higher education experience.  While many governing boards seem to value corporate experience, once again there is no research to support the belief that executives are better suited and more successful as university presidents than those coming from within the ranks of academe.   (As a side-note, although we have seen several corporate executives become university presidents, we are unaware of any university president who has become a corporate executive.) While some non-traditional candidates are quite successful in their new position, others have the opposite experience, and often resign fairly quickly, often citing their inability to engender trust among the faculty, and leaving the university in a quandary over what to do next.

Finally, we wonder about the purpose of Mr. Gallogly’s hiring.  We occasionally have seen cases in which a president has been hired specifically to make bold changes, and to make them quickly – often due to perceived or real issues with budget, personnel, or other matters.  Given the quick “retirement” of Mr. Gallogly, we wonder if this were such a case. Looking at Mr. Gallogly’s contract with the university only adds to the mystery – there is very little discussion of what will happen should Mr. Gallogly leave the university.  There is no discussion of termination (with or without cause), and no discussion of what he might be paid if he were to leave before the end of the contract. In yet another study, we’ve documented that such issues typically are spelled out with great care and specific wording.  In fact, the only thing that is clear is what is in the contract with the search firm: they will conduct a new search at a greatly reduced price if certain conditions are met.

Regardless of the reason for his leaving, the university now must make some momentous decisions.  Given recent history, we would suggest that the search be open and transparent, and that members of the faculty, staff, students, and the larger community be involved from the beginning and throughout the search process.  Most importantly, there should be multiple final candidates who are required to participate in a public process. These steps will do much to improve the atmosphere around campus, to demonstrate the regents’ understanding of the issues involved, and to ensure that the results are supported by those who will be most affected by the next president.  

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