Saturday, September 25, 2010

Chapter 16

George Michaelson strode into the NDU Board of Trustees room precisely at noon. It was a smaller group of journalists than had attended his press conference last September. There were no cameras this time. Nor was there anyone from the student newspaper, The New Dominion.

"We don't ordinarily hold a press conference in May, and on the last day of classes at that," Michaelson began, "but recent events have made it necessary.

"As was first reported by Kate Morgan in the Post on Monday," Michaelson continued, nodding at Kate, "NDU's provost, Dr. Jeannette Bobier, has been offered and has accepted the presidency of St. Catherine's College on Maryland's Eastern Shore. She shall be missed sorely here, but we wish her well in her new endeavor."

This, George knew, was not quite how he felt. She had created several little messes which she was now walking away from and leaving him to clean up. She had also mentioned just recently how she thought that the contacts she was making on the ZARD Industries board of directors would enable her to raise the $75,000 to cover the expense of the botched Public Policy Institute directorship search. This money, if she had in fact raised it, would now go with her to St. Catherine's College.

"Life here at NDU," he continued, "can and will go on. We are pleased to announce that Dominic DiSola, the dean of NDU's College of Arts and Sciences, has agreed to serve as acting provost next year while a national search is conducted to fill the position. He will also continue to serve as CAS dean. Just raise your hand there, Dominic, in case there's anybody here who doesn't know you already."

It wasn't clear that he was really provost material, Michaelson thought to himself as Dean DiSola timidly raised his hand and smiled weakly at the assemblage. He was far too close to the faculty for Michaelson's taste, and would not willingly play the role of executioner on promotion and tenure decisions as Jeannette Bobier had done. But Michaelson really had no other choice at such short notice. The College of Arts and Sciences was the biggest and most diverse unit within the university. Hence Dominic had some experience dealing with the range of issues that a provost had to deal with, unlike the deans of the smaller, more specialized schools and colleges who were intimately familiar with their own fields and little else.

"As most of you know," said Michaelson, "our search for a director of the new Public Policy Institute didn't quite work out as we had hoped. We are really not disappointed, however, as we would rather take the time to find the person we know is right for the job."

There was no need to reveal that the three candidates who had been offered the job had all turned it down. They were obviously not "right" for the job--or right in the head either, as far as Michaelson was concerned.

"We will reopen the search for a permanent director this coming year," he continued. "In the meantime, though, Ruth Silverstein, chair of our Political Science Department, has graciously agreed to serve as acting director next year in order to get the institute up and running. She will also continue to run the Poli Sci Department. Okay, Ruth, now you raise your hand."

She smiled and waved with much greater self-confidence than Dominic had. Michaelson had his doubts about the more Machiavellian benefits that Jeannette said would result from this appointment. Ruth struck him as enthusiastic but competent when she came to his office to talk about taking on the assignment. He didn't think she would cause him any problems during her year as acting director--at least he hoped not.

"That's all the announcements we have at present," Michaelson concluded. "Are there any questions?"

The first to raise his hand, Michaelson noted with annoyance, was Todd Rawlings from the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "Is it true," he asked, "that NDU paid $75,000 of the tax payers’ money to the headhunting firm of Little & Ball for the search this past year which failed to produce a permanent director for the new Public Policy Institute?"

Oh, shit! How the hell did he find that out? "Yes, I think it was something like that," responded Michaelson, clearly caught off guard. "But you've got to keep in mind, Todd, that that fee included all the costs of advertising the position, correspondence and phone calls with all applicants, and all the expenses of bringing the candidates here which the university would have borne directly if it had conducted the search without the aid of a headhunting firm."

"You've just announced," Rawlings continued, "that next year there would be a national search for provost and that the search for the Public Policy Institute director would be reopened. Are those going to cost $75,000 apiece too?"

Michaelson hadn't quite focused on this. "Well, you've got to understand, Todd, that NDU must compete with other universities for top flight administrative talent. Employing headhunting firms to do so is becoming standard practice in higher education."

"Why not just appoint Dean DiSola as provost and Professor Silverstein as institute director, and save the taxpayers $150,000 next year?"

This was embarrassing. He couldn't just come out and say that it was because these positions were too important to be entrusted to anyone already at NDU. "Now, Todd! Dominic and Ruth already have full-time jobs here. They are free to apply for the permanent positions, if they so choose. Serving on an acting basis will allow them--and me--the opportunity to see whether it is a good fit for them, or whether retaining their regular positions makes more sense.

"Besides," Michaelson added, "if we simply appointed Dominic and Ruth, or anyone else here, to these positions permanently, we'd immediately have to begin searches to fill their old positions."

"I appreciate that," said Todd. "But it sure seems like it would be a waste if you spend $75,000 apiece on searches for these positions next year, and the people chosen to fill them end up being the two acting appointees. And would a headhunting firm then be hired to fill the regular positions they occupy now?"

"Now, Todd, this is getting highly speculative," replied Michaelson. "I can't answer that question since I have no idea what the result of next year's searches will be.

"Does anyone else have a question?" asked Michaelson, hoping to get off this subject.

Kate Morgan raised her hand. "I'd like to follow up on something from last fall. I wrote about how an NDU staff member identified to me a student who had filed a sexual assault complaint about Professor Robert Barnes, but when questioned, that student denied ever having filed such a complaint..."

"I'm sorry, Kate, but it is NDU's policy not to discuss in public anything to do with sexual assault charges or their withdrawal. We realize that we had some unfortunate episodes of sloppy journalism by the student paper last semester--which you wrote about in a little more detail than we would have liked--but that problem has been addressed."

The reporters from these two papers were so predictable, thought Michaelson. While the Times-Dispatch always obsessed about anything to do with how state tax money was spent, the Post always obsessed about anything to do with sex.

"All I want to know," continued Kate, "is this: if there were no such charges filed against Professor Barnes, why is he leaving NDU?"

Now how the hell had she found that out? Nothing remained confidential here.

"Was he denied tenure?" she pressed on. "If so, I thought assistant professors were always allowed a year to appeal if they turned down?"

"No, he was not denied tenure!" Michaelson replied hotly. In a calmer tone, he added, "Nor is it absolutely certain that he's leaving. Information of this nature, of course, is confidential, and I really hope you won't quote me even having said this much. If you want to learn anything more, you'll have to talk to Professor Barnes himself."

As far as Michaelson was concerned, Jeannette's handling of Barnes was a far greater problem than the failure of the search she had overseen for a Public Policy Institute director. Michaelson had affirmed her decision to deny tenure to Elita White and Ann Sweezy. Those two clearly did not deserve it. But her Machiavellian scheme to make their ouster appeal-proof by denying early tenure to the more qualified Barnes had backfired.

Barnes had received a copy of the provost's memo recommending against tenure for him at the same time as Michaelson's office had. It had taken almost three weeks before Michaelson had been able to look at the three dossiers Jeannette was advising him to turn down, talk to her about her reasoning, and decide to award Barnes tenure against her advice. Barnes, though, had also reacted to the provost's memo. Perhaps anticipating that Michaelson would deny him tenure as the provost advised, Barnes had sent Michaelson a terse letter announcing his resignation as of the end of the semester. Michaelson had received it just this past Monday--the very day Michaelson had signed his own letter to Barnes awarding him promotion and tenure.

For Michaelson, attracting and keeping winners like Barnes was far more important than getting rid of losers like White and Sweezy. So much more important, in fact, that Michaelson had abased himself to the extent that he had actually phoned Barnes to say that he had been awarded tenure, and to please reconsider his resignation. Barnes's reply was simply, "Thanks, but I've already accepted a job somewhere else." He even said that it was a job that had no tenure!

Jeannette, of course, had failed to calculate that going elsewhere would be an option for Barnes. And now that she too was leaving, she no longer cared. What Michaelson feared was that word would spread about not just Scott Halpern, but now also Robert Barnes turning down a tenure offer from NDU in favor of an untenured position elsewhere. Would others like them think that there was something wrong with NDU? This was not the sort of reputation Michaelson wanted for his university. He'd try again to persuade Barnes to stay, or if not that, take a leave of absence instead of resigning. He'd ask Ruth and Dominic to work on him, too. They should do this for him, Michaelson thought, since they both now owed him for their new acting positions--as well as higher salaries.

"There's something else I'd like to follow up on," said Todd. "Who was responsible for selecting Little & Ball as the headhunting firm to conduct the Public Policy Institute director search this past year?"

Oh, God! Is he still on that? "It was Provost Bobier who arranged that," responded Michaelson.

"Is it true," continued Todd, "that Little & Ball was also the firm that conducted the search for the presidency of St. Catherine's College?"

That bitch! So Jeannette had hired Little & Ball mainly so they would peddle her to some other college--which, of course, they earned another fat fee from. But since he didn't know for certain whether Todd's information was correct, Michaelson decided that a low-key reaction was in order. "We don't know anything about how the search for the new president of St. Catherine's College was conducted. You'll have to address any questions about that to the administration at St. Catherine's."

And Michaelson knew that Todd would. Maybe Kate would too, although Michaelson couldn't see any sort of sex angle for her. Well, if there was one, she'd find it.

Michaelson looked at his watch. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to leave," he announced. This time, he really did have a meeting to go to. "If you have any further questions, please address them to Dominic, Ruth, or our media relations director.

"We hope to see you all back here in September when we'll be announcing another exciting new initiative here at NDU."

"Will that entail yet another $75,000 national search?" asked Todd.

Michaelson, though, was already out the door.

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