A search firm used by Oregon State University to hire F. King Alexander in 2020 was temporarily banned by the University of North Carolina System for failing to meet contract expectations.
The University of North Carolina System is a multicampus public university system for the state of North Carolina.
The firm was banned from conducting searches due to a due diligence failure when recruiting East Carolina University’s chancellor Cecil Staton in 2016. Former UNCS president and Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, stated that WittKieffer’s performance did not meet their expectations.
ECU’s Associate Vice President for Media Relations Joshua N. Ellis said via email that they did not have anyone available to speak on this topic.
Judith Wilde, research professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, has conducted extensive research behind executive search firms and their public contracts with universities.
“As part of the contract, WittKieffer was asked to look into the history of salaries from ECU’s new president, and they missed some,” Wilde said. “So, the president got a contract for more than what they would have offered without WittKieffer’s error.”
WittKieffer had to then return the $110,000 that the search cost and were temporarily banned from conducting searches in North Carolina.
OSU’s Vice President for University Relations & Marketing Steve Clark confirmed that former President F. King Alexander was hired last year with the aid and evaluation of WittKieffer.
“WittKieffer is a well-known and qualified search consulting firm that has successfully aided many universities in filling openings for university and college presidents and other officers,” Clark said.
Debbie Colbert, secretary of the OSU Board of Trustees, said that WittKieffer’s status in North Carolina was discussed at the time they were considered for the OSU presidential search that landed on Alexander.
“WittKieffer was selected based on the firm’s commitment to active recruitment and their proposal to work in partnership with the search committee,” Colbert said. “This included the role of a search advocate in the process, and metrics related to diverse pools of candidates and successful placement of diverse and talented candidates at similar [research] and land grant institutions.”
Colbert said WittKieffer provided detailed responses in terms of their due diligence process, which included verifying academic degrees, credential and licensing, public source information and verifications of employment.
“The Search Firm Selection Committee reviewed submissions and advanced three firms for interviews based on their written responses to questions,” Colbert said. “Such as prior experience, commitment to diversity, alignment with OSU’s timeline, process needs and ability to identify and vet best candidates.”
Moreover, according to Colbert, WittKieffer has done six executive searches for OSU since 2017.
“Public universities have in their DNA, shared governance,” Wilde said. “This means that the president and the Board of Trustees do not make decisions on their own, they share decision-making with the faculty.”
Wilde said that oftentimes executive search firms help universities find ways to get around sunshine laws—laws that demand public universities to find a certain number of finalists for jobs such as university president—allowing these firms to point out only a single candidate for a job.
“Once the one person they choose has been named, at that point, things in their background start to be found,” Wilde said.