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Three major presidential searches dominate the higher education recruiting landscape this year, as Penn, along with Duke and Rice universities, endeavor to nab new leaders by this July.

Before making expensive management decisions, universities form search committees of trustees, students, faculty and occasionally staff and community representatives and hire outside consultants who often attempt to get the job done in about a year.

And competing over a finite number of candidates, these schools' search committees have all carefully guarded their talent hunts.

Duke's search committee, according to its Web site, intends to identify and approve a successor to outgoing Duke president Nannerl Keohane by Feb. 28, 2004. Keohane, like Penn's own Judith Rodin, enjoyed a 10-year term, announcing in early March that she would step down in June of 2004. Duke hopes to swear in her replacement on July 1.

Outgoing Rice president Malcolm Gillis announced this past winter that he would be stepping down after 11 years in office. The starting date for Rice's next president is also "approximately" July 1, according to a 26-page white paper released by the university, outlining the university's goals and character and soliciting candidates whose personality and qualifications seem to match. Rice has engaged the services of AT Kearney Inc., a Virginia-based executive consulting and placement firm.

Though Penn got a later start, as Rodin did not announce her intention to step down until this past summer, the University, working with Boston-based search firm Isaacson Miller, intends to have Rodin's successor in office by July as well.

Enthusiastic and on schedule as each of these claims to be, even as universities are increasingly willing to pay presidential salaries close to the million dollar level, some searches at other institutions have simply failed.

"Look at the University of Washington," American Council on Education spokesman Paul Hassen said. "UW has been looking for a new president now for a year, since their president jumped to Rutgers [University].... They haven't been able to find someone."

Some, however, claim that there are plenty of presidents to go around.

"I've been doing this for 30 years now. I think there are always good people out there -- sometimes you've just got to work hard to find them," Duke University spokesman John Burness said, noting that the last time Duke had to find a new president, the University of Chicago and Columbia and Yale universities were searching simultaneously.

Search committees and the consultants whose services they engage work hard -- and in silence.

"After publicizing the criteria that we're looking for, [the search committee] basically said that until such time as the trustees make a decision, that's the last you're going to hear from the search committee," Burness said.

Search committees at Rice and Penn have been equally secretive, declining to comment on specifics of the search.

Though the inner workings of the search process may be hidden from public view, that can change when things go wrong.

At Boston University, for example, a recent presidential search ended in a public relations disaster.

Though the university formed a search committee whose membership was drawn from the BU community and hired Isaacson Miller, James Iffland, a professor and former chairman of the Faculty Council at BU, said that former university president and then-university chancellor John Silber's involvement rendered the process a sham.

In fact, according to Iffland, Silber took control of the search and chose to ignore Isaacson Miller's recommendations, championing his own candidate, NASA administrator Daniel Goldin.

Goldin took the job this past summer, only to step down following a vote of no confidence by the BU Board of Trustees the day before he was to take office.

"The moral of this is that you really cannot have a president deeply involved in the choice of his or her successor," Iffland said.

Iffland offered observations and advice for other university communities engaged in presidential searches.

"You can have faculty representatives on committees... but they're usually faculty chosen by the central administration who are usually pretty much on board with the central administration's project, whatever it might be," Iffland said. "It tends to be hand-picked faculty."

Iffland added that the process of consultation can often simply be window dressing.

"I would just keep my eyes peeled for the activities of any clique of powerful trustees or administrators, people have to have their ear to the rail and see whether what they are going to witness is an anointment rather than an appointment," Iffland said.

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