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The presidential shuffle

It’s never been a better time to be president of the University of Oregon. That’s what Connie Ballmer thinks.

Ballmer is the head of the Presidential Search Committee, which is tasked with replacing former President Michael Gottfredson, who resigned suddenly in early August.

“The university is really on track to know where it wants to go, what it’s going to take what the obstacles are and how to get there,” Ballmer said. “When a president comes in, he or she should be really excited to see that kind of preparation and foundation.”

Gottfredson’s tenure coincided with a series of recent events that put the University of Oregon in the national spotlight — sexual assault allegations against members of the men’s basketball team, a viral video of students dumping snow on a retired professor — and only lasted two years. And that’s not unusual at the UO. The last five years have seen five different people in the president’s office.

This year’s search has the potential to break the pattern.

In past years, presidential searches were conducted by the Oregon University System. This year, the UO’s on its own. With the formation of a new governing board on July 1, the Board of Trustees took the future of the UO into its own hands and assumed the responsibility to hire and fire presidents.

This could be attractive to potential presidential candidates.

“The president who is designated or who is being ‘romanced’ will know that he or she has the undivided attention of a single governing board,” said former UO president David Frohnmayer.“That should give a whole lot more confidence than the governing board when I was president that had seven universities for which it was responsible.”

Frohnmayer is the University’s last president to be in office more than two years. He had the position for 15 years from 1994 to 2009. He thinks the independent governing board is an attraction to potential presidents because the board won’t be distracted by six other universities and can focus solely on the University of Oregon.

Board chair Chuck Lillis appointed Connie Ballmer to lead the search. Ballmer is a UO Alumni, she currently lives in Washington with her husband, Steve, the former CEO of Microsoft.

Attemps to contact Lillis were declined.

The presidential search committee includes four board of trustee members representing entities such as Nike, Columbia Sportswear and the Timber Products Company in Springfield. The committee also holds the dean of the law school and several high up UO faculty.

The presidential search committee works with a search firm to identify strong candidates.

“The search committee’s charge is to identify and recommend the top candidates. So they’re not selecting the next president,” said Angela Wilhelms, secretary to the university. “They’ll do all this vetting, weed through all those people who aren’t the right candidate, the right fit, and identify those handful that are.”

The search committee is also aided by an advisory committee “that represents the breadth of UO stakeholders both on campus and in the greater community,” UO Spokesperson Julie Brown said in an e-mail.

The advisory committee includes two undergraduates, one graduate student and several faculty members from various departments.

The search committee and the advisory committee report to the Board of Trustees, which votes to hire the president.

The current search is similar to the past searches. In typical OUS searches a committee of faculty, students and stakeholders specific to the university works with a search firm to vet presidential candidates.

“That search committee narrows the candidates down,” said Ryan Hagemann, Vice Chancellor and general counsel to the OUS “And gives those candidates to the Chancellor. The Chancellor then interviews and does his or her work before they get to the board.”

Like many searches, the preliminary stages will be conducted behind closed doors. Final candidates are announced to the public and brought to campus to speak. This is done to protect the privacy of presidential candidates, said Ballmer.

Most candidates are employed elsewhere and a completely public search may dissuade qualified candidates from applying and risking their current employment.

“Confidentiality is so important,” said Ballmer. “It’s not that unique. It’s a key factor in any high profile search.”

Other searches at the UO are similarly closed including the searches for the Library Dean and College of Education Dean, said Tobin Klinger, senior director of Public Affairs Communication.

The hope is that this search produces a longer-lasting president.

“It’s really hard to focus on long term goals if you have rapid turnover.” Frohnmayer said. “Whether that’s cultivation and stewardship of philanthropy or some academic reform, three or four years are not enough time.”

There have been three presidents and two interim presidents in the past five years.

The Board of Trustees has made it clear that Coltrane should make himself at home while the search is still active.

“We’re hard pressed to give anyone a timeline,” said Ballmer. “We’re committed to finding the right candidate.”

It’s not just the timeline that’s uncertain, but also the qualities that they’re looking for.

“We’re trying to reach out to all the different people who care about the U of O,” said Ballmer. “To invite their thoughts on what’s most important. Eventually we need to get down to three to four key characteristics. We’re not there yet.”

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Alexandra Wallachy

Alexandra Wallachy

Alex is a head correspondent at the Emerald focusing on higher education and student government. She is also a producer for the Emerald Podcast Network and a huge fan of the Daily Show.