MUN faculty pushing back against vote to hire private headhunting firm in search of school's next president

Josh Lepawsky, president of Memorial University's faculty association, says using a private recruiter to hire the university's next president flies in the face of public values. (Ariana Kelland/CBC - image credit)
Josh Lepawsky, president of Memorial University's faculty association, says using a private recruiter to hire the university's next president flies in the face of public values. (Ariana Kelland/CBC - image credit)

Memorial University faculty are questioning the university's choice to hire a private headhunting firm to acquire the school's next president, saying the choice to outsource the hiring process offers little value to the institution.

The presidential hiring committee's decision to issue tenders for a private recruitment agency comes a year after CBC News reported former president Vianne Timmons had been removed from her role in the wake of questions about her claims to Indigenous ancestry.

A recruitment agency was used to hire Timmons in 2020. MUN spent about $150,000 on that contract.

Josh Lepawsky, president of the Memorial University of Newfoundland Faculty Association, says hiring recruiters to find MUN's brass has never ended well.

"Private consultants have really no clear value add to bring to these hiring processes. There have been studies on this by different academic associations, and no substantive evidence has been found that they offer real value," Lepawsky said Thursday.

External recruiters, he said, are "typically engaged in the private business world," tapped to hire top-level executives in the sphere of industry.

"The more that a public university is presumed to operate like a private business … arguably the worse it has become at delivering its public mission," Lepawsky said.

"Private interests are narrow and selfish. Public interests are for everyone, and private interests are typically focused on short-term, bottom-line issues.

"We've had the departure, of course, of the former president, but also the very rapid departure of other high-level administrators in the past despite using these private search firms to hire them. So there really is no strong evidence for the beneficial use of such private search firms."

Memorial University of Newfoundland. Photo by Paul Daly
Memorial University of Newfoundland. Photo by Paul Daly

The presidential selection committee, made up of students, faculty and board of regents members, voted earlier this month to use an external agency to recruit the school's next president. (Paul Daly/CBC)

MUNFA says it's had no response from administration to the open letter it penned Monday. In that letter, faculty suggested an external recruiter should simply round up a list of potential candidates, and faculty and students would then step in with more involvement in a transparent selection process.

"It is the view of MUNFA executive that the names of shortlisted candidates and their CVs should be made public," the letter reads. "Furthermore, all shortlisted candidates should meet and take questions from … various stakeholder groups."

"The role of that search consultant should only be in terms of gathering information about, and compiling information about, potential candidates," Lepawsky said.

"The consultant should not be making decisions on who is included or excluded from the total pool of people to be considered."

No capacity for MUN hiring staff 

An update April 10 from MUN's presidential selection committee noted it would begin the search for a recruitment agency.

"After considering search support options, including the extent of internal capacity to support such a search, the PSC resolved to seek the services of a professional search consultant to work at the direction of the committee," the update said.

"It was further agreed to form a subcommittee to develop a request for proposals from interested firms and evaluate proposals received, giving particular attention to the cost-benefit of each.

"The committee also engaged in a preliminary discussion about the logistics of the search process, specifically regarding whether the candidate search and selection process should be 'open or closed' — conducted with complete confidentiality or public in some phases."

Glenn Barnes, chair of the board of regents and of the presidential search committee, told CBC News on Thursday that the committee discussed using internal employees to hunt for the next president but concluded current staff didn't have the capacity or the expertise.

"Because an external consultant is in that business, they're the best able to provide us the best advice," Barnes said.

Barnes said the committee will next decide whether presidential selection should be an open or closed process, or something in between — with an eye for balancing transparency and privacy for candidates, who may still be employed elsewhere while applying.

He said the committee didn't discuss external recruiters' past track record of hiring success.

"This is a completely new committee who would have no knowledge, really, of the past," he said. "To suggest a connection between an external consultant versus internal and future searches is not a connection really that I think one can make."

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