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Failed UW System presidential search cost $216,400.90
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Failed UW System presidential search cost $216,400.90

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Van Hise Hall on UW-Madison's campus houses the University of Wisconsin System administration.

The cost of the University of Wisconsin System’s failed presidential search tallied $216,400.90, according to records obtained by the Wisconsin State Journal.

The System won’t be able to recoup the amount because the contract with the company that organized the candidate search didn’t specify nonpayment if the hiring process failed. The contract also doesn’t require the search firm to conduct a second search at a reduced price. A new search will likely cost at least the same amount.

The System’s search for its next president collapsed in June when the lone finalist, University of Alaska System president Jim Johnsen, withdrew his name from consideration on the same day the search committee planned to meet and make a hiring recommendation to the UW Board of Regents.

Public opposition emerged at the outset of the search last fall when Regents president Drew Petersen named no faculty or staff members to the search committee, a break from past practice. Resistance to the search process continued for months, concluding with Johnsen backing out and citing “process issues” as his reason for doing so.

About $214,200 went to Storbeck Search and Associates, the search company hired to recruit top talent to the job. Records show the search yielded 29 applicants, including three who self-identified as underrepresented minorities and five women.

The company’s website said Storbeck works “proactively and energetically to recruit excellent and diverse pools of candidates in every search we conduct.”

Storbeck’s website also lists the UW System presidential search on its list of “completed searches” without any note indicating no one was hired for the job.

Katie Skeen, a corporate communications specialist for Storbeck, declined to answer any questions, including whether the company plans to conduct a second search for the System at a reduced price.

“We do not comment on our clients or on past or current searches,” she wrote in an email.

System spokesman Mark Pitsch said the System did not attempt to renegotiate the cost of the search with Storbeck because it is “not customary.” He also said that, to his knowledge, the company hasn’t offered to conduct the search again at a reduced cost.

The sunk cost comes at a time of financial uncertainty for the state’s public universities, which are reeling from additional expenses and lost revenue because of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as state budget cuts.

George Mason professor Judith Wilde, who studies college presidential searches, said the 29 applications received is lower than typically expected. She has reviewed about 100 search contracts through her research and has not found one that acknowledges the possibility of a failed search, which she said is incredibly rare, nor one that outlines a payment plan when a search fails.

“Part of it is because search firms don’t want to admit that’s a possible outcome,” she said. “They want to be positive.”

A review

Wilde reviewed the System’s contract with Storbeck at the State Journal’s request and said it was more detailed than others she has studied. For example, the contract includes language added by the System requiring candidates be asked whether they have been found to engage in sexual violence or harassment.

The System’s contract also states that if the candidate placed by the company leaves within a year of their start date, the company immediately re-initiates a search for the same position and charges only the cost of expenses. That scenario isn’t always included in search contracts, Wilde said.

The total cost of the System’s failed search likely would have been even higher had the pandemic not moved most meetings and interviews online.

Minimal travel

The only travel expenses appearing in the provided records came in December when the search committee met for the first time. The System reimbursed two search company employees about $2,200 to travel to Whitewater for a roughly two-hour public meeting, part of the $214,200 the company received.

Among other expenses were $1,000 to Chicago Marriott for a nonrefundable deposit. The committee had planned to meet for several days in Chicago for face-to-face interviews with candidates in the spring, which likely would have resulted in hotel room charges, parking expenses, mileage reimbursement, plane tickets and catering costs.

Former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson assumed the position of interim System president July 1 and will serve for at least a year until enough time has passed to attract new candidates.

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