Northwest College presidential search moves forward

Posted 10/28/21

The Northwest College Presidential Search Committee held two meetings this month to resume the search for a new president. 

Last spring, the committee voted to extend the contract of Interim …

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Northwest College presidential search moves forward

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The Northwest College Presidential Search Committee held two meetings this month to resume the search for a new president. 

Last spring, the committee voted to extend the contract of Interim President Lisa Watson for a year rather than conduct a search while the board of trustees was trying to balance a budget, a process that included cutting nearly a dozen positions. 

The plan had been to resume the search this semester, and the committee discussed the profile of qualifications and competencies that NWC will advertise for the position. 

This month’s meetings began with recaps of the previous committee discussions, including a general view of the input the committee received during various input sessions with stakeholders and constituents earlier this year.

“We don’t want to start from scratch,” said Trustee Lawrence Todd. 

The most contentious issue among committee members was whether candidates would be required to have a Ph.D., or if the position would be advertised as a doctorate preferred with a master’s degree required. 

In previous searches, a doctorate was required, but in the last search for a new president, which resulted in the selection of Stefani Hicswa, the doctorate was only preferred. Hicswa has a doctorate in educational administration. 

Trustee John Housel pointed out that, in the input sessions, about two-thirds of the participants thought the search should be conducted with a doctorate preferred and master’s degree required.

“That seems to be the sentiment on campus regarding this question,” Housel said. 

Board of Trustees President Mark Wurzel pointed out that the president of the University of Montana, Seth Bodnar, has two master’s degrees but no doctorate. 

“They seem to be pretty satisfied with him,” Wurzel said. 

Jill Anderson, NWC human resources director, suggested it would be better to go with the doctorate preferred as it might give the committee more candidates to consider. 

“I’m not really sure I want us to limit our pool, because I don’t know we’re going to get a lot of candidates. There’s not a lot of people looking for presidential positions,” Anderson said. 

Shelby Wetzel, executive director of the NWC Foundation, agreed it would be better to cast a wider net, as the college is facing a lot of challenges with budgets and enrollment, and there might not be a large “number of people who want to take on this kind of headache.”

Bryan Lee, who serves on the NWC Foundation Board of Directors, suggested that not requiring a doctorate degree might give the impression to prospective candidates that the college wasn’t serious about finding the best leadership, which might reduce the number of candidates. 

Amy McKinney, associate professor of history, represents the faculty on the committee. McKinney said the consensus among faculty members is that the college needs a leader with teaching experience — including a doctorate — and considers that more important than the candidates’ experience in business. She said the faculty is concerned a president with a business background would treat the job as a spreadsheet and wouldn’t “see the big picture.” 

“The business world would not necessarily have the insight in making decisions … Are they asking the right questions? Are they thinking about the needs of the students and the college?” McKinney said. 

Trustee Carolyn Danko argued that experience in business was important for the president’s role, and issues related to academics could be delegated to the college’s dean of academics. 

“We’re going to need someone who is experienced in finance and budgeting and managing,” Danko said. “The president can’t do it all.”

Trustee Larry Todd wondered if a teaching background requirement would create a “fork” where candidates would be expected to have administrative experience that demonstrated retention and recruitment, in addition to years of instructional experience. 

“It would be a very unusual person who wasn’t nearing the end of their career who had a proof of record in both of those things,” Todd said.

McKinney, however, said it isn’t unreasonable for a qualified candidate to have taught prior to moving into administrative positions. 

Dee Havig, NWC interim vice-president for student services, echoed the concerns that the position advertisement should attract candidates with administrative experience in finance and enrollment management.

“Many of our candidates will have the credentials to teach classes, but in their careers, worked with all the constituency groups,” Havig wrote in the chat of the Zoom meeting. 

Wetzel agreed that teaching experience should be a preferred quality and not a requirement. 

“Our faculty and the academic VP [vice-president] are the academic experts. There are so many other demands on a president!” Wetzel wrote in the chat.

Another concern was that the candidates have a firm understanding of the legislative process, as the president needs to communicate NWC’s needs to elected leaders. 

Housel proposed asking that candidates have an understanding of how the state’s finances work with relation to mineral taxes and how that has impacted the public funding. 

“It’s a very significant concern. It’s been a concern with the trustees and will continue to be so,” Housel said. 

Todd argued that wouldn’t have to be stated explicitly in the advertisement, as candidates would need to “do their homework.” He proposed it be mentioned but not elaborated on.

“I don’t think we need to spoon feed them,” Todd said.

The committee also discussed how much emphasis to place on candidates’ demonstrated ability to navigate the impacts of COVID-19 on classroom instruction, including transitions to hybrid and online learning. 

“How we think about the traditional classroom is going to be much different post-COVID,” McKinney said. 

Trustee Tara Kuipers said it’s been a turbulent time in higher education, especially at NWC. The ideal candidate, she said, needs to be comfortable with that kind of transition, if not drawn to it. 

“Some might call it chaotic … I want somebody that’s excited about that,” Kuipers said. 

The committee came to a consensus that the search will be open to candidates without doctorate degrees, but they must have a master’s degree. The advertisement will also incorporate language aimed at attracting candidates with records of success in enrollment and retention; an ability to succeed in an institution undergoing transformations; and an ability to effectively communicate needs to legislators. 

The committee will meet again the first week of November to discuss the process by which it will review applications and conduct interviews. The expectation is that finalists will be selected in January and an offer extended by March. 

Meetings in which the committee will discuss specific candidates will be closed to the public, but finalists’ names will be made public.

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