Northwest College ponders what it wants in a new president

Posted 1/21/21

The search for a new president of Northwest College got underway this week with the first meeting of the Presidential Search Committee.

The committee is composed of the college’s board of …

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Northwest College ponders what it wants in a new president


The search for a new president of Northwest College got underway this week with the first meeting of the Presidential Search Committee.

The committee is composed of the college’s board of trustees and stakeholders that include alumni, administrative staff, student senators, professional and classified staff, faculty and the Northwest College Foundation.

No official decisions were made at Tuesday’s meeting, but the various representatives provided their initial input on minimum qualifications, characteristics and competencies the candidates should have.

Through February, the committee members will meet with constituency groups, and all that input will inform the college’s advertising for the position, which will be posted toward the end of next month. According to a tentative timeline, semi-finalists will be selected toward the end of March, and interviews — in person and video — will be conducted through April. The search committee will make its recommendations for candidate ranking by the end of April or start of May.

The board of trustees will then hold a special meeting in May to select a candidate and determine the terms of the offer. The board will offer the job to the candidate after May’s commencement. 


Confidential process

NWC Trustee John Housel began the meeting with directions on maintaining confidentiality throughout the process. Housel said previous search committees conducted business in closed meetings, and he discussed various precautions committee members need to take in the process.

“A lot of these meetings will be confidential, because they will involve confidential personnel matters,” he said.

For instance, Housel said committee members would need to be careful not to use names of candidates in the open meetings, as these will be kept confidential until the finalists are selected.

He also said the group would need to restrict the number of board members attending constituent meetings — which will be held to gather input from the public — as having more than three board members creates a quorum and triggers Wyoming’s open meetings requirements.

Jill Anderson, human resources director for NWC, also discussed procedures concerning documents, which have to be maintained for three years.

Anderson warned the committee that candidates tend to be resourceful, and some will contact members individually to ask questions and promote themselves. If individual members are engaging candidates, it can create an unlevel playing field, Anderson explained; she requested all such contacts be referred to her so candidates receive the same information and treatment throughout the selection process.

Housel added that, while the board would ultimately pick a candidate, the overall goal was to make that decision in the spirit of shared governance, meaning the committee’s input would inform the board’s decision.


Business background

The committee started with the search criteria used in 2013, which ultimately led to the hiring of NWC President Stefani Hicswa, who left the job this month.

Since that time, much has changed at the college, including its financial struggles. The state has instituted cuts across all departments, which includes community colleges, resulting in a $2.6 million shortfall for NWC. Interim President Lisa Watson this month presented a budget reduction proposal that includes the elimination of 24.5 positions, which includes 11 layoffs.

Northwest College is also undergoing an institutional transformation plan, which was initiated last year, to bring it in line with the needs of students and the community going forward.

With those parameters, the committee considered what needed to be updated from its 2013 search criteria.

There was considerable discussion about what level of education will be required. While the previous search required candidates to have a doctoral degree, with the financial difficulties the college is facing, some members suggested what mattered more was the candidates’ business background.

Trustee Dusty Spomer said, while the college needs to serve its students, if the school doesn’t adapt to the changing financial climate of the state, there won’t be an institution to serve anyone.

“The bones of the institution, or the backbone, it has to run as a business … before anything can happen,” explained Spomer.

In line with that thinking, Housel said the next president will need to be comfortable developing relationships with legislators and maintaining them throughout the year. 

“It’s that kind of personal attention that ultimately gets us the attention that we require from the legislators,” Housel said.

Additionally, in working with the NWC Foundation, the candidate would need a fundraising background.

Shelby Wetzel, executive director of the foundation, said the candidate will need to be the type of person who can develop new resources.

“We can’t just work with the endowments we have,” Wetzel explained. “It’s got to be out there, working with donors, presenting a vision for the college … try to excite them about the future and make them want to come along with us.”

This will mean leading the college’s focus on those external relationships with businesses, alumni and community members, she said. 


Doctoral debate

While there was agreement that a business and fundraising background was desirable, there was some disagreement about hiring a candidate with fewer academic qualifications.

Anderson said restricting the search to doctoral candidates would shrink the pool of candidates the committee could consider.

Trustees Bob Newsome and Carolyn Danko agreed this was a point to consider. Newsome said he believes someone with a master’s degree would be quite capable of filling the presidential role.

Requiring a doctoral degree “may very well eliminate a lot of qualified and very good candidates that [haven’t] spent their life in academia,” Newsome argued. 

“I think we have enough doctorates in our college,” Danko said.

In 2013, a doctoral degree was required over concerns about NWC’s accreditation. However, Anderson said the Higher Learning Commission, which is the college’s accrediting body, recently told her that hiring a president with only a master’s degree would not impact NWC’s accreditation.

Photography instructor Jennifer Litterer-Trevino pointed out many faculty members have doctoral degrees and have expressed a desire that the president also have one.

The other faculty member on the committee, Associate Professor of History Amy McKinney, said that while someone with a master’s degree might be capable of filling the president’s role effectively, there is a perception in academic circles to consider. She said a lot of legitimacy is given to having that doctoral degree, which would be lost when dealing with faculty at NWC and elsewhere.

Gerald Giraud, vice president of academic affairs, agreed with McKinney and Litterer-Trevino.

“When you have a well-qualified faculty as we do, a large percentage of them do have Ph.Ds,” Giraud explained, so “there may be a perception that without that terminal degree [the candidate] may not receive the academic respect and trust that someone with a Ph.D. has.”


Other qualifications

Madyson Riedinger of Powell, who serves on the student senate and represents the student body on the search committee, requested some consideration be granted to a candidate who will maintain a visible presence on campus.

“I think that has a lot to do with the morale of students,” Riedinger said, who’s in her third year as a student at NWC.

President Hicswa went on leave in November through her last day this month, and Riedinger said her absence on campus brought down student morale.

Anderson said a good candidate will need to support the faculty’s morale as well. With the upcoming layoffs and departmental budget cuts, that kind of leadership will be needed.

“Because of trauma and pain that’s going to be inflicted on our institution, that they’re able to be that communicator and help us with that healing,” Anderson said.

Trustee Tara Kuipers said a desirable characteristic would be someone who can lead the college’s transformation.

“Whoever is considering this role is going to be shepherding an institution ... at the midpoint of major overhaul. I think we need to bring that in explicitly as well,” Kuipers said.

There were also discussions about the candidates’ comfort with the rural qualities of the region. Anderson said this should be something to look for not only in the candidates but also their families. Offers in the past were extended to candidates who would have been happy living in this rural area, only to have spouses decide it wasn’t what they wanted.

The search committee plans to meet again the week of Feb. 8 to review feedback and finalize the presidential profile.