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Search falls short

Current candidates for the job of USF president have their strengths, but none meets the high standard that has been set for Betty Castor's replacement.

The Florida Board of Regents meets today and Wednesday to interview finalists for the presidency of the University of South Florida. The short list of candidates is disappointing, due partly to flaws in the search process and what appear to be conflicting priorities that serve neither USF nor the Tampa Bay region. The regents should reopen the search. A second effort could lure a deeper talent pool, focus the mission for the next president and galvanize community support as USF continues to mature.

A regents committee will meet at USF's Tampa campus to interview the five finalists for the job. All the candidates have some notable strengths, but none meets the high standard that the regents and Chancellor Adam Herbert set for choosing a successor to Betty Castor, who used her solid instincts and strong political skills to further USF's academic mission and build popular support. Castor gave USF the footing to succeed as a top-ranked research university. Its next leader needs the intellectual heft, organizational skills and strength of personal character to realize that vision.

The regents promised USF a "card-carrying member" of the nation's academic elite, yet the short list before them today falls short. A search advisory team, including dozens of campus and community leaders, was given an inadequate number of first-rate candidates to consider for the job.

A search firm selected by the regents complained that Florida's open-government laws scared away many quality candidates, including sitting presidents. But that is why a private firm is hired _ to make discreet overtures to quality applicants. The Sunshine Law has not discouraged top names from applying for the vacant president's job at the University of Florida.

USF is not UF; each has a distinct history, size and mission. However, the regents need to understand why so many involved are frustrated with USF's presidential search. Herbert insists he is satisfied with the five remaining finalists and sees no need to reopen the search. But the chancellor gave similar assurances two years ago before pulling the plug at the University of North Florida. The second search produced stronger candidates. So why is Herbert not showing the same judgment here?

Herbert created one unnecessary issue by insisting on the involvement of a search firm led by a long-time acquaintance he's known since their college days in California _ the same firm hired for the presidential search last year at Florida Gulf Coast University, which had to be reopened when the finalist pool was deemed inadequate.

A firm with a stronger track record in presidential searches than Morris & Berger, the firm favored by Herbert, might have attracted the attention of more top-rank candidates. But there have been other missteps. The search advisory committee, which has done the real work of culling the candidates, will give its report to the regents Wednesday _ moments before the regents are supposed to select finalists for the job.

Some believe the regents aimed too high with their rhetoric, knowing USF would not draw a leader from the academic elite. That view is inconsistent with the growth of Tampa Bay and the role USF plays in the emerging high-tech corridor across Central Florida. By reopening the search, USF can advertise its strengths. Rather than blame the Sunshine Law, the regents should examine procedural flaws in the search method. Reopening the process and giving the community a real voice in choosing the next president will help USF preserve its greatest asset. We're talking a few extra months to choose a leader for five, six, 10 years. What's the rush?