Search for school's next president kicks into full gear

COLUMBIA -- For 17 years, the University of South Carolina has had presidents who moved the flagship institution forward, each in his own way.

John Palms was a fundraiser who restored integrity to the school following the scandals of the James Holderman years.

Andrew Sor- ensen has given USC and Columbia a vision for academic and economic growth that's more ambitious than anything either has ever seen.

Now, as Sorensen's July 31 retirement date approaches, USC's presidential search committee hopes to find a replacement who embodies all of those qualities and more.

Five things stand out.

The next president will have to be:

• Ethical, with a good track record;

• A bridge-builder who can work with trustees, academics and city leaders alike;

• A visionary who can drive the school's missions home;

• A goal-setter who can anticipate needs and make on-the-ground decisions; and

• Possibly above all else, a fundraiser extraordinaire.

USC's presidential search committee is to meet Tuesday with school trustees to hear what they're looking for in a president.

Assisting the committee is Dallas-based consultant William Funk, who has worked on some of higher education's top placements.

The S.C. system has about 41,000 students and a $1 billion budget. But it has an outsized impact on the state. The system's eight campuses school more than 40 percent of the students at South Carolina's 13 four-year public institutions.

Leaders across the state say the decision of who will lead the school looms large among leadership decisions that will be made in the state this year.

Traditional values wanted

Thorne Compton, an English professor and associate director of the Institute for Southern Studies, said the faculty will want a new president who values traditional disciplines, even if he or she is not in those disciplines.

"We spend a lot of time talking about hydrogen and fuel cells, but I want someone who values and appreciates the humanities and the arts as well," said Compton, who served on the search panel that selected Sorensen.

"Everybody believes this research infrastructure is important. The faculty wants to see that research become part of what we teach," he said.

"When I was on the search committee, one priority was to have a president who actually knew he was coming to a university that has a responsibility to its state, that is not an ivory tower separated from its community," he said. "I think we were fantastically successful in that regard."

University presidents take many paths to the executive suite. Sorensen is a Presbyterian preacher and public health professor. Palms is a nuclear physicist. Yudof is a law professor.

By turning to a top executive recruiter, the search committee hopes to draw on his extensive Rolodex of proven leaders who could continue the academic and economic vision Sorensen set in motion.

If Yudof's move is an indicator, the quest will be expensive. Yudof received a nominal pay boost, to $828,000 from the $790,000 he received at the University of Texas. He now is one of the highest-paid college presidents.

Sorensen's compensation package is $552,000 a year.

But some make more.

The cost of leadership has soared over the past decade for public universities. Institutions that once appealed to a sense of public service now feel obliged to compete with private-sector institutions for presidents. The Chronicle of Higher Education estimates the number of private colleges with chief executives earning more than $500,000 a year grew to 81 in 2006 from just three in 1997.

But USC search committee chairman Miles Loadholt has said it might be necessary to pay such a premium to get a president with all the desired leadership skills.

Mayor chimes in

Columbia Mayor Bob Coble said he hopes for someone who will carry on Sorensen's vision of a downtown research campus, and who cares about the university's relationship with the city.

"Integrity is an enduring quality, higher than anything else," Coble said. "But from the perspective of the mayor of Columbia, I would like to see someone who values the partnership between the university and the city, whether it be economic development and Innovista, or redevelopment of the community. It's a partnership that works to the economic benefit of both."