Reflections: What’s in a Search?

Reflections from a Black Millennial Who Chaired a Research-1 University Presidential Search

By Abdul M. Omari    //    Volume 28,  Number 6   //    November/December 2020

Among the most important roles of trustees and regents of colleges and universities is hiring the institution’s president.1 While this remains true, public institutions of higher education are under increased pressure to balance their many functions while cutting costs and being more transparent in everything they do.

Conducting a presidential search for a major public research institution is no small feat. It has the potential to change the institution as well as the state within which it located (such as the state’s population and economy, for example), and people become extremely anxious. We have seen searches across the country in recent years go awry. The University of Oklahoma had a closed process and much to the dismay and disappointment of faculty, staff, and students, announced a former oil mogul as its president. Eight months later, he resigned. The University of Colorado System announced a former member of Congress and then, the current president of the University of North Dakota as its sole finalist. Weeks of protests and outcry followed; however, Colorado’s board decided to push ahead with a vote and hired its president with a 5-4 vote. After the long-time president at the University of South Carolina announced his retirement in the fall of 2018, the university embarked on a search. Months went by and the all-male public finalists were announced. Later, it became public that all of the interviewed candidates were also men. These facts led to the declaration of a failed search. Just recently, South Carolina announced and voted on a new president in a manner deemed inappropriate by many causing more unrest amongst faculty, staff, students, and elected officials. Much of the concern regarding these searches centered on transparency and diverse representation on the search committees.

These searches remained front of mind—before, during, and after I set out to chair the search for the University of Minnesota’s (UMN) 17th president in 2018. It is something that I never thought I would do, much less do well. I was in the fifth and last year of my first term as a dually elected student regent.2 I was 32 years old and many of my colleagues were outraged that the chair and vice chair of the board of regents (BoR) chose me to chair the search. Claims of my being too young, too inexperienced, and undereducated (although I had completed my PhD in 2015) were widely circulated. On top of those claims, I am also a child of immigrants from Kenya and Jordan who identifies as black. I will not pretend; I had self-doubts. After all, there had only been 16 presidents for an institution that was founded in 1851 and it is unlikely that all were led by a search committee. At a maximum, I was the 17th person to chair such a search. That said, this article gives a brief sense of how the search unfolded, its ups and downs, the learnings, and observations from my time as the chair of the presidential advisory search committee (PSAC). Moreover, this article offers insights into how we developed a diverse committee and conducted a transparent, inclusive, and equitable search process for one of the world’s most comprehensive universities: The University of Minnesota.


Prior to my being asked to chair the PSAC, the chair and vice chair of the BoR conducted research in conjunction with BoR staff to find search firms. BoR staff narrowed the number of firms from which the chair and vice chair performed interviews and selected a firm.

When securing a search firm, it is important to include as many details as possible in the written contract between the institution and the firm. Always attempt to negotiate a flat fee. Publicly, it looks better and prevents the firm from using unnecessary resources. During our search we had a unique situation arise about a third of the way in and just before our position profile was to be advertised. We became aware that our search firm had entered into an agreement with a peer university. Our firm was to lead another presidential search in our conference. We found out after reading an online news article. While we had several verbal commitments that the firm would not take on a competing presidential search, we did not have this commitment in the contract. In hindsight, what we thought was understood by both parties and would never happen, happened. Within days, we removed our search firm and days later hired another firm that was ready to pick up and move forward. To our relief, the transition was seamless and a better fit for our search and institution.

Selection of the Chair and Committee

While selecting a new president is one of the most important roles for boards, selecting the chair of a presidential search is one of the most important things the chair and vice chair of a board will do. The first thing to know is that the chair will spend a significant amount of time working on the search. I estimate that over five months I spent hundreds of hours in this capacity. Second, think deeply if the institution and regents will be best served by having the chair of the board also chair the search committee. For some institutions, this is a good fit, while for others it is not a good idea. Two of the regents had PhDs when the search was launched. For an institution with a strong faculty presence and high faculty engagement, it can be beneficial to have someone chair the search with such a credential although it is not required. The previous presidential search chair is a medical doctor and was highly regarded as chair. For other institutions, deciding the necessary credentials to garner credibility would be wise.

Thinking deeply about the dynamics and working relationships on a board are also extremely important. It will be useful to conduct an inventory of a potential search chair and the person’s working relationships and collegiality with other members of the board. Finding someone who at a minimum gets along with each board member and has the respect of colleagues should be a goal.

Placing other regents (aside from the chair of the search) on the committee is a way to fill the gaps that the chair may be missing. For example, if the selected chair has a contentious relationship with a third of the board, adding a regent to the committee that has a more positive relationship with that third of the board could be a great way to alleviate this challenge. Today, unfortunately, this will often be fueled by political leanings. While unfortunate, it will need to be managed. Moreover, if the chair has differing ideas about the future of higher education from a third of the board, selecting a regent to serve on the committee that shares similar views as that third of the board is a way to create trust in the search committee. There is no science to identifying the board’s dynamics. In our case, we relied heavily on our board staff, the chair and vice chair of the board, and me.

In addition to managing the dynamics of the board, regents who are selected to serve on the search committee also help to create buy-in from external stakeholders. For example, if regents are politically appointed, there will likely be regents that publicly (or privately) have various political affiliations.3 Therefore, having a balance of representation will also serve the process well.

The chair and vice chair of our board decided not to serve on the search committee. Some search committees go in an opposite direction. A notable role for the chair and vice chair is to be a liaison between the search and the rest of the regents. This allows the chair and vice chair of the regents to carry out the day-to-day work of governance without being consumed by the search.

Identifying the committee size is a topic of debate around the country. Our hope was to have a committee of no more than 18 people. Fairly quickly we realized that would be nearly impossible. Our committee had 23 people and, as chair, I had  a hard cut off at 25; even though I desired fewer than 23. Search committee sizes vary widely. The previous search at UMN had roughly 13 members. Some institutions have committees as large as 40 members. With much larger committees, there is often a practice of having two committees with one in an advisory role and another holding more weight in the decision-making. I advise against the latter approach.

We opened nominations for the committee to the university community and the general public. This resulted in over 400 unique nominations, which illustrated a high level of engagement from community members. Thankfully, our staff was able to compile the nominations and the chair, vice chair, our staff, and I spent hours talking through the nominations. Having a diverse group of people at the table while selecting committee members helped us formulate a committee that was diverse in age, race, class, gender, careers, geography, and thinking. I would posit that having a homogeneous group of people making the committee selections would have led to a less diverse committee and, thus, would have impacted the final outcome of the search. Upon invitation to serve on the committee, we had all committee meeting dates identified and if a potential member could not make all of the dates they were eliminated. In that same conversation, they received the dates. I called each person and invited them, personally. I felt a personal phone call was important to express the seriousness of the role and committee, and to begin forming a relationship with each committee member. Many of these calls turned into lengthy conversations about the process. The majority of people were able to adjust their calendars; however, there were a few potential committee members who could not adjust and were removed from our list.

One thing we found extremely helpful in choosing committee members was to determine the stakeholder groups we needed and wanted on the committee. The committee consisted of two students, seven faculty members (from different disciplines and rankings), three staff members, eight community members (including business, nonprofit, rural and metro, education, and foundations), and three regents.

Some committee members wore multiple hats that covered multiple community stakeholders. For example, one person is a farmer, entrepreneur, and chair of the alumni association board. Therefore, this committee member could hit multiple stakeholder groups that we desired to have representation. This was tremendously helpful because the committee would have grown exponentially if we were not strategic about the members and their multiple touchpoints within and outside of the university.

During selection of committee members, it was important to balance the talents and perspectives needed on the committee with people that could be influential in bringing along university community members throughout the process. Because of the private nature of such a search, committee members needed to ensure that the process was a good one and take that message to university community members that they knew and with which they interacted.

The Committee Charge and Job Profile

The BoR office and members of the BoR articulated a clear charge to the PSAC that guided all of our work. It had detail while remaining loose enough to allow for creativity from candidates and committee members to think about what the university could look like and who might be best to steward it. The regents voted on the document in a public meeting. This was a way for regents to have a say in the process early because not all regents would be serving on the committee.

A job profile, which included core leadership criteria established by the BoR was created in conjunction with several offices within the institution. However, there was awareness that the profile would adjust after the listening sessions (discussed in the next section) concluded. We thought it was important to add themes from the listening session to ensure that stakeholder desires and comments were included. These two documents were guides in discussions during the committee meetings and conversations about candidates.

Listening Sessions

As noted, an important aspect of a presidential search for a public institution (we are also a land grant institution) is transparency and inclusion.4 That said, listening sessions are effective even though they are time and resource consuming. We hosted listening sessions on each of the five campuses over full days including two on the largest campus in the Twin Cities. Separate sessions were offered to staff, students, faculty, and community members. Some were well-attended and others were not; however, the information gained from the listening sessions was invaluable. As chair, I attended every listening session and the other committee members attended as they were able.

The listening sessions were an opportunity to engage multiple stakeholders and give due credit to the institutional and higher education knowledge that stakeholders possess. It was an opportunity for our community to engage with the process and the committee. It was a chance for people to vent, brag, ideate, dream, and imagine the future of higher education and the future of the University of Minnesota. It was also an opportunity for the committee to learn. We listened intently, took copious notes, and I had the unique pleasure of translating, summarizing, and giving attendees the assurance that I understood their messages. The president of the University of Minnesota serves as the central executive of our largest campus and the president of all five campuses. Here are some of the major findings from our listening sessions:

  • The president’s presence was heavily desired across the university, on every campus and in every campus and in every department.
  • There was a desire for an innovative president to lead the university system.
  • Budget models were a major concern.
  • There was an overwhelming feeling that the university was on the cusp of moving from great to exceptional and it was necessary to find a president who could move us over the hump.

We were able to take the information from listening sessions and add some to the job profile.

In a later conversation with our now president, I mentioned the listening sessions and she reflected on her thoughts after watching the videos of the sessions. For her, she noted that the engagement the committee and I had with the audience gave her great insights into the university, the seriousness with which we take our stakeholders, and the manner in which the rest of the search would be carried out. She watched closely how I, as chair, received feedback, reflected on the feedback, and articulated what I was hearing.

In addition to large listening sessions that were open to large groups, in conjunction with the alumni association and university foundation, a list of targeted listening sessions was developed. Some of the groups included the boards of the alumni association and the foundation, major donors, corporate executives, and presidents of local chambers of commerce. I participated in approximately 12–15 of such sessions during the search window.

Lastly, a list of individuals was generated and I made personal phone calls to approximately 60 individuals to gain their insights on the future of our state, higher education, the university, and some of the qualities and characteristics we should be seeking in our next president. These individuals included elected officials (ranging from the state representatives where our campuses are located to the governor), executives of major foundations, corporate executives, and previous employees and administrators of the university. Every opening in my calendar was filled with calls such as these. I even made some calls while riding in the backseat going from campus to campus during our listening sessions. I attended a Faculty Consultative Committee meeting when the search kicked off and engaged with student groups on the Twin Cities campus by attending organizations’ meetings throughout the search.

Committee Meetings

The University of Minnesota Board of Regents is fortunate to have a stellar staff. The executive director and deputy director were with me every step of the way. These two staff people attended all precommittee meetings and we discussed flow, potential discussion points, and ways to keep the meetings on track. Within committee meetings I found it integral to have staff I trusted and staff with whom I had a good relationship. The staff knew what my facial expressions meant and when it was clear that I needed things to move along. They were able to interject with neutral perspectives at times when the same comment from me might appear biased. Moreover, what is not frequently considered during a search is that the daily work for staff does not stop. The executive and deputy director put tremendous energy  and  time into the search while maintaining their day- to-day work and the other staff members put in extra efforts to ensure that things stayed  on track throughout the search. It was a gift to watch the poise and professionalism of the staff during this chaotic time and every staff person profoundly stepped up.

In addition to the BoR staff, the vice chair of the committee plays an important role. First, it was important to have someone that I trusted to push back on me in our pre- and post-committee meeting conversations. It was someone I felt comfortable sharing my uncertainties and someone who could complement my strengths. While we intentionally did not use titles and the formalities associated with them (committee members were referred to by their first name), everyone remained aware that I was an elected regent and the chair of the search committee. That said, there were times when the vice chair and I agreed that a comment from her would be received differently than if it were coming from me. In our case, the vice chair happened to be the dean of school of my master’s program and we had built a great relationship since my graduation years earlier. In other cases, if the conversation was leaning too far towards a focus on the business relationships maintained by the university, I would call on a faculty member to recalibrate the conversation and be sure we were considering all stakeholders and components of our mission.

As noted, we changed search firms midway through the search. The firm for the second half of our search was AGB Search. The lead consultant and I quickly garnered a trusting relationship. One in which phone calls were the norm, texts became frequent, and emails were ongoing. We planned our committee meetings together and frequently cofacilitated. He would present big picture information and offer guidance when the committee sought it. I would facilitate conversations—unless it was meaningful for me to be active in the conversation. I pushed back on him in our meetings and he did the same with me. I sought guidance around the landscape of searches and presidents, while he sought understanding about the university context.

As committee chair, I had the unique  and challenging task of managing the flow of the meetings and keeping everyone on time while attempting to make sure members did not feel as if they were being cut off. I started our first meeting by expressing that despite the differences in positions of individuals on the committee (regents, faculty, students, staff, etc.) everyone is equal on the committee and has an equally important voice. To ensure that everyone felt comfortable, at the recommendation of the vice chair, I expressed that we would be using first names only and there was no need to use titles during the deliberations. I reiterated that everyone was selected to be on the committee because their views and opinions were greatly valued and that only a small percentage of the interested people were selected to be on the committee. Therefore, everyone gets an equal voice.

Several times, I reminded people that although they were chosen to serve on the committee because of their unique backgrounds and experiences, we were selecting a president for the entire university and all of its constituents. The president is expected to serve numerous stakeholders who all have different needs, expectations, and views on the position. So, individuals on the committee should bring their backgrounds to bear on the discussion but realize that they were not advocates for their constituents, but were serving on the committee to hire someone who would represent all the constituents. It was important to bring our backgrounds to the conversation while also keeping our minds open to the fact that we needed to hire someone who would meet the needs of all stakeholders and that some of those needs were in direct conflict with each other. Stating this upfront and clearly was necessary to set expectations and avoid arguments/conflicts if a committee member felt they had a responsibility to “fight” for a particular constituency. One important caveat is that I felt strongly that the voices that historically had not been represented on such a committee needed to be represented on this one. Particularly, voices of those who had been left out of higher education because of systemic oppression.

With a 23-person committee, time was always front of mind as the chair. I continued to make it clear that we had an agenda and time restrictions as a way to keep the discussions focused. I apologized in advance for cutting people off to ensure everyone got a voice. Explaining that people who have not spoken will get a chance to speak before others receive a second opportunity to opine was a tactic used. One method that I have found particularly helpful throughout my career and in this case, was to let folks know that silence is a form of agreement. In other words, if someone agreed with a point that had been made there was no need to take time to express that agreement. Otherwise put, if you want to reiterate a point that has been previously made hold your thought and only speak if you are making a point that has not been expressed by anyone else. Lastly, as discussions on a particular subject slowed I would ask if anyone wanted to add something that had not been expressed and/or would alter the way we were viewing the discussion. Several committee members commented that these approaches helped them focus their thoughts, hold some comments (that had already been made), and helped to move the conversation along.

Narrowing the Field

The committee received more than 65 applications for the position. While that may not seem like many for those serving in corporate human resources or on faculty hiring committees, let me assure you, it was a lot of reading, time, and attentiveness.

Be sure that the committee has a rubric that is developed directly from the job profile. This rubric should be used by committee members to rank all of the candidates prior to the initial committee meeting  where candidates will be discussed. In our case, we asked our lead consultant to identify candidates that he would remove from our list. I offered that if any committee member had a desire to discuss one of the people who were tagged by the consultant to be removed we would add the candidate back to the list. Several committee members took me up on that offer. Delineations between highly qualified, qualified, and unqualified were identified. Remember to come back to the committee charge and the job profile whenever necessary.

Making committee meetings interesting and fun can help with flow and engagement. Introduce some activities for committee members to explore candidates. After we narrowed down our top candidates for interviews, I decided to take a risk by having the committee break into small groups and do an activity. This was not previously discussed or planned. The committee broke into small groups and each was assigned a candidate. The task was to come up with the reasons a candidate should be interviewed followed by the reasons the candidate should not be interviewed. It turned out to be worth the risk because committee members who were adamantly opposed to interviewing some candidates were forced to articulate qualities that could warrant an interview. While this was hard for some committee members, it proved valuable because everyone felt comfortable with moving forward with interviews for the identified candidates. In addition, it provided a break from the normal flow of a committee meeting.

There was one notable moment that could be a learning lesson for those chairing a committee in higher education and other industries. The committee was discussing a particular candidate’s interview during which answers were more narrative and offered historical context before directly addressing questions. For many on the committee, this was confusing, frustrating, and a sign of an inability to lead the university. And, those committee members were not shy about articulating that. After comments from several committee members sharing this sentiment I called on someone who shared a similar background as the candidate to give another interpretation. This person reframed the answers in a way that educated committee members on a cultural dynamic that many had not experienced and changed the dynamic of the discussion. Other committee members weighed in with agreement and made their case for the candidate. The candidate received 22/23 votes to become a finalist. I revert back to the selection of the committee members that led to such a fruitful, diverse, and productive conversation that leads to desired outcomes. Without the intentional selection of a diverse committee, conversations like this would not have been possible and the candidate certainly would not have become a finalist.

Transparency and Confidentiality

Throughout this article, there have been several references to transparency. In any search for a public institution, there will be the desire from stakeholders for transparency. The desire to provide transparency is frequently at odds with the legal obligation to provide confidentiality to candidates. Our motto during this search was that we would be as transparent as the law would allow. The ways in which we made attempts to be transparent were numerous. We conducted several listening sessions, we had an open nominations process for committee members and received over 400 unique nominations, we had a website where updates were regularly posted and ongoing input could be provided, we provided email updates to the university community, the chair spoke to the media at length, hosted a webinar for all alumni across the world, attended student government meetings, and attended faculty consultative committee meetings.

Being transparent and confidential can be hard. Being aware that people’s livelihoods are at stake during a presidential search is imperative. Meaning that many candidates who desire to be your institution’s next president have to balance the reality that their institutions will not take that desire lightly. Some candidates were forthright about the high likelihood of being fired by their employer if their interest in becoming UMN’s president was known. Because of this, I began each committee meeting reiterating the importance of confidentiality. And when it became known that a committee member had shared information with someone outside of our committee, I addressed it at our next meeting. Nine months after our search was completed, and on the day of our president’s inauguration, a senior administrator told me how shocked he had been that the search committee had maintained the confidentiality of our candidates.

Not only was it important that candidate information was kept confidential, it was also important that committee members felt comfortable having open and honest dialogue. Committee conversations could be heated and people needed to the able to share their thoughts and opinions without concern that the information would leave the committee room. Therefore, each committee member also signed a confidentiality form about the information of candidates and the discussions that would take place in the committee meetings. I also made sure to mention that the content of our meetings would also remain confidential during meetings to reassure confidence in our committee members.

Final Thoughts

It was my hope in writing this article about the search for the University of Minnesota’s 17th president that readers would be able to gain insight into how a search can unfold, understand the balancing dynamics in a high-profile search, and learn some tips about running committee meetings. It should not be lost on the reader the tremendous risk and the statement that was being made by naming a black, 32-year old millennial with immigrant parents from Kenya and Jordan as the chair of this search. It was a statement of trust, boldness, and a statement about the future of higher education and the University of Minnesota. I am forever thankful to the chair and vice chair that named me search committee chair.

No matter how much we plan for a search and no matter how much attention to detail is paid, things will not be perfect, something will go wrong, and people will be upset. I continued to think, “plan, plan, plan, and let go.” One goal for a search such as this is to stay out of the news. No news is good news. The failed and controversial searches that we see happening around the country end up in the news. After our search concluded, there was little to no national coverage. That is a sign of success.

I conclude with this: While she is currently performing very well, the success of our 17th president is yet to be determined for years to come. One committee member reflected in a local newspaper that at our first committee meeting he looked around at 22 other committee members and thought, “this will never work.” But he ended that piece with this, “I know for certain that there are some tremendous people who would love to be president of the University of Minnesota and we found one of them. And I believe the process worked.”5 I know every institution will do things differently, and I encourage it. Context is key. In the spirit of Frank Sinatra and later Jay-Z: We did it our way.

Abdul M. Omari, PhD, served six years as an elected member of the Board of Regents at the University of Minnesota and currently serves on the University of Minnesota Foundation Board of Trustees. 


  1. Trustee and Regent will be used interchangeably. They refer to the governing members of an institution of higher education. In some cases, they are also referred to as Board of Governors.
  2. The student at-large regent is elected in the same election process as the other 11 regents.
  3. University of Minnesota Regents are appointed by members of the state legislature.
  4. I would suggest that private institutions also do listening sessions.
  5. Levin, (2018, December). Funny thing about the U’s presidential search council: It worked. Star Tribune.
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