$13,000 provost search not unreasonable, but still questionable


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Compared with the cost of a similar search in 2008, the price tag for the University of Iowa’s 2011 provost search seems trifling. For a mere $13,000, university officials managed to select 21 candidates, vet three of them, and ultimately come to a favorable consensus.

But the thousands of dollars used to tap the new provost were, more or less, used to bring in dark-horse candidates and ended with the promotion of the standing interim provost to the full-time position. While Uday Sukhatme (an executive vice chancellor and faculty dean at Indiana University/Purdue University-Indianapolis) garnered a largely positive reaction and came in close second to interim Provost Barry Butler, third candidate Yash Gupta (at the time, the dean of Johns Hopkins University’s Carey Business School, with scant other features to recommend him) received more negative reactions than positive ones.

Officials made an excellent choice in the appointment of Butler. While it is laudable they managed to do so without another $56,506 expenditure, UI President Mason’s Provost Search Committee could have done more to play down costs and entice a wider field of qualified competitors.

Nearly half of the cost went to advertising to prospective candidates alone — yet according to the records obtained June 16, Butler enjoyed special favor during the election and handily received nearly twice as many positive responses as Gupta. Did the advertising campaign fail to draw a sufficient number of qualified, interested challengers? One woman and 20 men applied for the post; inevitably, it came down to three men, one of whom was filling the position.

In comparison, a provost search at Virginia’s Radford University drew a whopping 65 applicants, taking 10 months to culminate in a selection in January. A provost search at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, started in July 2009, was suspended later that year after hiring a private search firm and unsuccessfully expending $147,500 to find a suitable candidate. (Nearly two years later, an interim provost still holds the position.)

And there was never any question Mason favored Butler.

“I can’t think of anyone better suited to this position or more committed to the University of Iowa than Barry Butler,” Mason wrote in a May 17 press release following the announcement of Butler’s selection.

“I have spent my entire academic career at the University of Iowa and have developed a deep understanding of and great respect for the institution,” Butler said in the same press release. He has worked extensively in the UI, initiating biomedical and aeronautical programs, promoting global understanding, conducting aerospace research, and even working closely with the Iowa Office of Energy to further advance clean-energy alternatives.

There is no doubt whether Butler is highly qualified and was a practical choice for provost. Giving outside candidates a chance to apply for a job is required — but there’s no requirement for how much money must be spent on the search.

If Butler had been appointed to the full-time position for his tireless work and commitment to the UI following former Provost Wallace Loh’s quick departure, would any opposition have arisen? An extra $13,000 could go a long way in funding struggling departments or even completing the renovation of Art Building West.

Particularly concerning, too, is the absence of a detailed financial breakdown. The general categories — advertising, search committee meetings, on-campus interviews, and video-conferencing interviews — stand in stark contrast to the 2008 totals, which included a list of exactly what the provost candidates and search committee members ate at various Iowa City restaurants.

In the end, the UI is fortunate to have selected a capable, long-term provost. But there are still lingering questions about the necessity of spending $13,000 to hire the current occupant of the position.

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