By Steven Bonini
With the announcement of President F. Javier Cevallos’ retirement last spring, the search for a new university president has commenced.
To select candidates for the presidential vacancy, the University has formed a search committee as required by the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education (BHE).
The “Massachusetts Board of Higher Education Guidelines and Procedures for the Search, Selection, Appointment and Removal of State University and Community College Presidents,” necessitated that the committee consist of “a minimum of three [Board of] Trustees members and at least one individual from each of the major campus constituencies (students, faculty, professional staff, non-unit staff and support staff.”)
Kevin Foley, chairman of the Board of Trustees (BOT), is charged with chairing the search committee and released a statement on the Framingham State website stating the committee “will be looking for a dynamic leader dedicated to building upon the University’s reputation for academic excellence, access, civic engagement, inclusive excellence, as well as creating a blueprint for the future of the institution.”
During the first BOT meeting of the academic year Sept. 22, Foley said individuals who intend to apply for the presidency will do so through the month of October, adding Oct. 15 is “the first time that the committee will see any of the [candidates’] CVs [curricula vitae] and résumés.”
He said, two weeks following, there “will be a lengthy day session to go through and to winnow down and select who we want to bring forward to interview.”
By mid-November, Foley said he expects interviews to take place, “and from that point in time, the committee will make the selection of the finalists ... to bring forward to the Board of Trustees.
“December, we’ll have a special meeting of the Board of Trustees to go through and make that selection and the recommendation to the Board of Higher Ed for the next president of the University,” he added.
In an interview, Foley said he does have experience working with presidential searches as he was the “President of the Foundation Board” during President Cevallos’ candidacy and was a member of the search committee at the time.
He said he is committed to “transparency” throughout this process, adding it is important the
committee look for somebody who is a “compassionate leader,” and said that’s something he believes Cevallos has brought to the table over these last eight years.
Foley added one of the changes from the prior search eight years ago has been a focus by the BHE, himself, and committee members on the “equity agenda.”
The search committee did have a discussion on mitigating bias throughout this process at their most recent meeting Sept. 13.
The conversation was led by Ex-Officio Committee Member Kim Dexter, assistant vice president of Human Resources and Equal Opportunity.
At the meeting, Dexter said, “We want to ensure that we are looking at the whole candidate and evaluating them using job-related criteria and not letting our own personal biases really infect that process.”
Dexter stressed the importance of conducting a search “that did not rely on bias or have any
discriminatory elements,” adding it is important for committee members to be careful what they write down on paper regarding record retention.
Dexter said there are some key questions for committee members to ask themselves before writing anything down.
“Is this related to the position? Is this related to the candidate’s qualifications for the position? Or is it more of a personal judgement that’s based on my assumptions about how people should look, speak, behave, dress?” asked Dexter.
“That’s where we can really find ourselves getting into some problematic records that when they are scrutinized, are going to call into question the legitimacy of our search,” she added.
The committee is also working with a search firm called “WittKieffer,” which according to the firm’s website, will “seek out leaders who act as catalysts for inclusion and equity, and those leaders from organizations that enjoy great success in harnessing the power of a diverse team.”
According to Foley, WittKieffer was also used to help select Cevallos.
Ann McDonald, chief of staff and general counsel and an ex-officio member of the committee, said when the BOT selected the firm, “we did what’s called a request for quotes, and anybody that we asked could submit a quote for a price to do a presidential search. And they happen to be on the state contract, but there were others [firms] that were not necessarily on the state contract.”
McDonald said the trustees submitted a series of questions to each search firm and asked them to answer those questions in their proposal back in early to mid-May, “And then the trustees interviewed each one of the search firms that submitted a proposal.
“That’s how they chose them [WittKieffer],” she added.
The firm has helped advertise for the position, she said, adding, “They are helping with the recruitment aspect of it,” networking and reaching out to potential candidates.
McDonald said currently, the search committee meetings are made open to the public, but eventually as the committee begins to review résumés, they will enter what’s called an “executive session.
“When we’re reviewing personnel information relative to prospective candidates, the group does it in executive session to protect their [candidates’] identities,” she said.
Once the finalists are determined, she said the meetings will return to “public meeting mode,” and résumés of the finalists will be posted on the campus website, “so folks will have an opportunity to look at their credentials.”
McDonald said her role on the committee is to advise and council, and she does not get to vote on candidates, but she believes the committee is focused on selecting individuals for the position who are going to face the challenges of the future.
“Think about just the last two years. ... Pandemic, remote learning, all of the things – the reduction in enrollment – those are all things that didn’t even exist when President Cevallos was hired for his position,” she said.
“Now, it’s almost like if you had this set of lenses on in 2013, when he was hired, and now you’re wearing your 2020 glasses, or 2021 glasses, and you go, ‘Whoa, the world looks different right now. ... Framingham is different, and the needs of Framingham are different as well,’” she added.
McDonald said the committee will look for individuals who have the same “integrity and standards” Cevallos has, but will also be looking for a candidate with different experiences that will suit the University “for the next five or 10 years.
“You have to be smart about it and not just say, ‘We want a cookie cutter of President Cevallos’ because the world has changed,’” she added.
Dara Barros, SGA diversity and inclusion officer and the student representative on the committee, said she will “serve as a voice for students,” adding she has been an orientation leader, a student admissions representative, and is now serving on SGA.
Barros said her goal is to “make sure that the next president is going to be to the benefit of the overall student body,” and will “continue the work that FSU has been starting with the diversity and inclusion and the anti-racist work.
“I’m looking for a president who is charismatic, has a welcoming face – someone that we could see on campus and always feel like we could go to,” even in difficult times, she said.
Cevallos said he would like to see the committee pick a candidate who “understands the campus culture,” and somebody who understands that FSU is a “student-centered” community as well as an “anti-racist institution.”
The outgoing president said he believes it’s also important for the candidates to have “management experience in addition to leadership” skills.
“Every time that you’re looking at any kind of senior-level position, you want to have both somebody who can have a vision and lead, at the same time, somebody who can manage. That is something that you have to bring together,” said Cevallos.
He added he has tried to bring some of these qualities to the table himself over these last eight years.
“I have tried to lead the campus with integrity and with transparency,” he said. “I have also been committed to making this a just and fair campus for all, and that’s all the efforts in diversity and inclusion ... making sure that we are a better society, and we reflect that better society.”
Cevallos added he has tried to show the faculty, staff, and students that he “truly” respects them. “Hopefully, people see me that way.”