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University of Utah hires Dallas-based headhunter for presidential search

Basic fees for such searches average $80,000 nationwide, 2016 study says

FILE - The John R. Park Building, which houses the University of Utah president's office, is pictured in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 3, 2017.
FILE - The John R. Park Building, which houses the University of Utah president's office, is pictured in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 3, 2017.
Alex Goodlett, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A Dallas-based executive search firm, R. William Funk & Associates, has been hired to conduct the search for the next president of the University of Utah.

The firm, which specializes in higher education search consulting, received the highest scores from state evaluators among seven vendors that took part in a request for proposals process conducted over the summer.

Fees for the search firm's services were not immediately disclosed by U. officials. The Deseret News has submitted a request to the university under the Government Records Access and Management Act in an attempt to obtain the information.

However, basic fees charged by firms conducting presidential searches average about $80,000, according to a 2016 study by George Mason University researchers.

A statement from the Utah System of Higher Education describes R. William Funk & Associates as "a premier search firm specializing only in higher education search consulting. They are recognized for their unparalleled record in recruiting many of the nation’s most esteemed college and university leaders."

Recently, the firm has participated in presidential searches at the University of Arizona, the University of Southern California, Ohio State University, the University of Minnesota, the University of North Carolina and St. John's University, a private Roman Catholic research university in New York City.

"The firm’s founder, Bill Funk, is renowned for his vast network of higher education leaders, and he will personally handle the university’s search. The search committee is confident that Bill’s experience and track record will be a major asset to its efforts," the statement said.

The 24-member search committee is led by Harris H. Simmons, vice chairman of the Utah State Board of Regents, and H. David Burton, chairman of the U. board of trustees. The committee includes regents, trustees, university faculty, staff, students, administrators, alumni and community members.

According to documents on the Utah Public Procurement Place website, Funk rose above competitors because he works solely in higher education, according to evaluators.

He received the top score for references, which the documents described as "exceptional, and more importantly were from institutions similar to the University of Utah."

Under the evaluators' cost-benefit analysis remarks, the document states: "Assigning a financial value to R. William Funk’s vast network of higher education leaders is tremendously difficult and is not practical. In part, it is likely the most valuable asset a search firm brings to a presidential search.

"Merely advertising or cold-calling potential applicants will be marginally successful at building a deep, highly qualified pool of candidates. The cost of missing out on what could have been an outstanding president because of a shallow pool of candidates is incalculable."

George Mason University professors Judith A. Wilde and James H. Finkelstein, who have researched the use of executive search firms in higher education, found the basic fees for searches for presidents, provosts and chancellors at four-year public colleges and universities ranged from $25,000 to $160,000.

"The average was just below $80,000. Most of these were a firm, fixed price,” said Wilde, chief operating officer of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason.

"The next largest group charged a percentage of the first-year’s base salary for the person who was hired," she said.

Some firms awarded basic fees also charged administrative fees or billed for "indirect expenses," she said Thursday.

Researchers looked at 106 advertisements for top higher education leadership positions at two- and four-year public colleges and universities published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The institutions were in 33 states but none in Utah.

Eighty-two institutions hired 21 different search firms, including R. William Funk & Associates.

Wilde, Finkelstein and a graduate student, who had been an assistant attorney general with experience with public records requests, obtained 61 contracts between search firms and the 82 institutions of higher education.

"Most of them, 70 percent, were from four-year colleges and universities," Wilde said.

More than half of the contracts with the universities and colleges — 57 percent — were written by the search firms themselves, Wilde said.

According to the Utah System of Higher Education statement, the next public announcement from the University of Utah presidential search committee will be its selection of three to five finalists. The finalists' names will forwarded to the Utah State Board of Regents for consideration. The regents have sole authority to hire and fire college and university presidents.

The 16th president of the university will succeed President David Pershing, who is retiring.

In May, Pershing announced he was moving up the timetable of his planned retirement in the aftermath of a high-profile rift between University of Utah Health and Huntsman Cancer Institute.

Pershing, who has served as U. president since 2012, will return to a faculty position at the conclusion of the presidential search. He will serve as president until his successor is appointed.