Editorial: Local and professional aid needed to hire Poly chief

In the best of times, finding the next president to lead Cal Poly would be a challenging task. In this disastrous economy — with the state budget for higher education constantly shrinking — it becomes even more critical.

To be sure, the university has the most at stake in this selection process. Yet the entire Central Coast is dependent on the continued success of Cal Poly and has an interest in seeing the best possible candidate chosen to succeed President Warren Baker.

For that reason, we would like to see the search process be as transparent, inclusive and thorough as possible — and we’re not convinced that’s the case.

For one, we would like to see more community input on the search advisory committee, which will provide recommendations to the CSU trustees, who will be making the selection.

That advisory committee does include several Cal Poly representatives, such as the ASI president, the chair of the Academic Senate and the president of the Alumni Association. That’s excellent. However, we believe it lacks a strong voice to represent the greater San Luis Obispo community, such as a representative of the city and/or the business community.

The city and the university truly have a symbiotic relationship — both benefit greatly from one another. But there have been town-gown tensions as well, and it’s critical to have a Poly president who is sensitive to community concerns. Including a San Luis Obispo representative in the process would help ensure that, and we urge CSU officials to consider adding such a person to the advisory committee.

We also urge them to reconsider the decision to forgo hiring an executive search firm.

A search firm could recruit candidates not only in traditional academic disciplines, but also cast a wide net for visionary leaders in fields such as business, industry and government.

It could contact candidates who may not be actively looking for jobs — and might miss the advertisements in professional journals — but would nonetheless be excellent fits for the position. And, it would do the initial vetting, to ensure that the best qualified applicants make it to the final rounds.

It also would help reassure the community that the committee was conducting a thorough and inclusive search, rather than sticking with a small group of preselected candidates.

So far, the only argument we’ve heard for not hiring a headhunter is based on cost; CSU Chancellor Charles Reed recently noted that not hiring a search firm saves around $200,000.

That is a significant sum, especially when Cal Poly is being forced to cut classes and make other budget reductions.

In the long run, though, it would be a wise investment if it turns up candidates who are the right fit.

The president of Cal Poly is, without a doubt, one of the most important positions in the entire Central Coast region.

As the state — indeed, the entire nation — struggles to survive the worst economic disaster we’ve seen in generations, we are going to need a dynamic individual with energy and vision; an effective and articulate leader who will continue to attract top faculty and students.

We also need someone who has a proven track record as a fundraiser — but at the same time recognizes the importance of independence and academic freedom, and won’t sacrifice that for the sake of a donation.

We need a president who values diversity and has the ability to inspire a new generation of students who will be our future lawyers, engineers, doctors, teachers, architects and CEOs, to name but a few.

And, we need a president with the ability to connect with and communicate with the community.

That’s a tall order. But expanding the process by hiring an executive search firm and including a local representative on the advisory committee will help ensure that we have the strongest possible field of candidates — and ultimately find a worthy successor to President Baker.