SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's commissioner of higher education says he is "confident" a new memorandum of understanding between the University of Utah and the Jon M. Huntsman Sr. family over operation of the Huntsman Cancer Institute will be in place before the search for a new U. president enters the interview phase.
Commissioner David Buhler, meeting with the Deseret News editorial board Wednesday, acknowledged that candidates will have questions about the rift that attracted nationwide media attention and completing a new agreement between the parties "will help us to answer that question to say these issues have been resolved."
Although U. President David Pershing had previously confided to Buhler and U. board of trustees Chairman H. David Burton of his plans to retire, he decided to move up the timetable in the aftermath of a recent power play for control of the Huntsman Cancer Institute.
The ordeal started with the sudden firing — then reinstatement — of the institute's director and CEO, Mary Beckerle, followed by the resignation of the U.'s senior vice president of health sciences, Dr. Vivian Lee.
Pershing has said he will stay on until a new president is selected.
When asked for more information about what transpired among the parties, Buhler said the events were institutional-level personnel matters, which are customarily confidential, nor did he want to disclose what was told to him in confidence.
"There were reasons for what was done, but there were reasons to undo it. I was not involved in it. It's an institutional decision," Buhler said without elaborating.
The search for a new vice president for health sciences will be handled concurrent to the president's search, "maybe a step or two behind our presidential search so that by the time a new president is named, soon after they will have finalists, or soon after they're named they have finalists and can make the final decision."
The board of regents has no role in that selection, he said.
When asked if presidential candidates will have concerns about major donors insisting on control of institutions or programs, Buhler said "any president has to deal with external audiences, including donors and many other audiences, including internal audiences."
Buhler said some 40 to 50 candidates are expected to apply to be the next president of the university, likely a mix of external and internal candidates, both traditional and nontraditional applicants.
The search committee, chaired by board of regents Vice Chairman Harris Simmons and Burton, should be assembled later this month, and its first job will be to develop a draft position announcement. The committee will be 20-25 members in size and include regents, trustees, U. faculty, staff, alumni and other stakeholders.
After a public process to comment on the job description, qualities and qualifications stakeholders expect of the U.'s next president, the announcement will be refined and a nationwide search will begin in earnest. The search could take eight to 12 months. The three finalists, whose names will be made public, might not be selected until early 2018, Buhler said.
The finalists will meet in closed meetings with constituent groups, which will share their impressions with the Utah State Board of Regents.
The regents will conduct final interviews and select the new president in conjunction with the U. board of trustees' executive committee. Under state statute, the board of regents has the sole authority to hire college and university presidents.
As CEO of the Utah System of Higher Education, Buhler said the next president of U. needs to continue positive trajectory of the state's flagship institution, enhance its roles as a top research institution nationally and a leading health care provider in the state.
Also, the new president needs to "continue the positive relationships built with the Utah Legislature" under Pershing's helm, he said.
While the selection of university and college presidents is the subject of much speculation, even rumors about certain candidates having an inside track, Buhler was emphatic that, saying "no one has been offered the job, I can guarantee you that."
"No one has been offered the job or given a wink or nod 'you're in.' … The people in the position to offer the job have not offered the job," he said.
While Buhler has no vote in the process, "I do have a voice."
As commissioner, Buhler said he will conduct a selection process that gives each candidate a fair opportunity.
"I'm committed to make sure that happens. That's my role to make sure the process is being handled in a fair way," he said.