Higher Education Panel Launches Leader National Search

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - When Kentucky's Council on Postsecondary Education last set out to find a new permanent president, the search was suspended under the uncertainty of a heated governor's race and a lack of candidates.

Now, after the resignation last week of embattled interim president Brad Cowgill, education officials are starting a new national search. This time, they're counting on different results.

"That was a delicate, if not awkward, circumstance the last time that made it difficult to assemble a good pool of candidates," Western Kentucky University President Gary Ransdell said last week. "I think the dynamics will be considerably
different this time."

Uncertainty has surrounded the council's leadership since former president Tom Layzell first announced his plans that he would retire after his contract expired in April 2007. Layzell stayed on through the end of September, after the council was unable to find a permanent replacement.

Last July, the council decided it would instead hire an interim president, picking Cowgill for that role. His contract expired last week.

But the council drew criticism from Gov. Steve Beshear and Attorney General Jack Conway after it decided not to resume its search for a president, and moved to hire Cowgill permanently. Beshear demanded a new search, and Cowgill subsequently resigned last week saying he had "no desire to wage a battle with the governor over this matter."

"I appreciated his decision to go in that direction because I think it helps wind up a very difficult situation," Beshear said of Cowgill. "And now I'm hoping, and I trust, that the council will go ahead and hire a search firm and conduct a nationwide search and find us a permanent president."

The council is the state's coordinating agency for Kentucky's public universities and community and technical colleges.

The panel decided last week it would hire a recruiting firm and start a national search. Chairman John Turner said the search could last up to six months or more, and it was possible the group may hire another interim president.

State law spells out some characteristics for a prospective council president.

For example, the candidate must have a background in academics, have strong communication skills and "an established reputation as a professional in the field of postsecondary education," according to state law. The person must also not show any institutional or regional bias.

"There are a number of people out there that will fulfill those qualifications," Beshear said. "And, hopefully will step up and be available for us to take a good look at."

Still, the council in its last attempt was unable to settle on a permanent chief.

Bob Sexton, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, said the last search may have been affected by
its timing.

It came amid the governor's race between former Gov. Ernie Fletcher and Beshear. Top-tier candidates may have been hesitant to come forward amid the uncertain political climate, Sexton said.

"Before, the problem was that the candidates did not know what was going to happen in the election," Sexton said. "They have to know who the chief executive of the whole system is if they're going to move here for a top job like this."

Beshear said he's willing to help recruit candidates, but that's up to the council.

The search comes as Kentucky grapples with revenue problems and budget cuts. The state is facing a $900 million revenue shortfall over the next two fiscal years beginning July 1, and universities are facing 3 percent cuts in state funding.

Kentucky's public universities have responded by proposing tuition hikes that range from 6 percent to nearly 9.7 percent. The council is expected to decide on the tuition increases at a meeting on Friday.

Sexton said the financial problems also should not pose a significant problem for fielding candidates.

"There are people who like a challenge," Sexton said.

Reform efforts have gained Kentucky a nationwide reputation for "being on the very cutting edge of improvement in higher education," Dan Flanagan, the council's vice chairman, said. "I think a job such as the president of our Council on Postsecondary Education is certainly one that people would be interested in pursuing."

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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