It's something of a sellers' market this year when it comes to potential leaders for major universities.
Many states other than Utah are shopping for presidential talent, which complicated the University of Utah search that culminates this week.
The state Board of Regents on Friday will interview the last two men standing in the seven-month quest, shrouded in confidentiality, for Michael Young's successor at the U.'s helm. But despite the competition and last-minute withdrawal of two potential finalists, officials say they are pleased with the caliber of the remaining candidates: U. senior vice president for academic affairs David Pershing, and University of Kentucky provost Kumble Sabbaswamy.
Pershing, a franchise player who has spent his entire academic career at the U., would be the first internal candidate hired in nearly 30 years. He arrived as an assistant professor of chemical engineering in 1977, not long after earning his doctorate at the University of Arizona. A physicist who has served three universities, Subbaswamy is Pershing's counterpart at Kentucky.
On paper the two U. finalists are evenly matched, but Pershing's connections with faculty, Regents, trustees and lawmakers, forged over a 35-year tenure, could give him an edge. Pershing's familiarity might carry an additional premium considering the U.'s vice president for health sciences, Vivian Lee, is new to Utah.
The Regents' search committee examined 80 legitimate candidates, according to Cameron Martin, an associate commission of higher education who assisted the search.
But the University of California San Diego, Iowa State, New Mexico, Arizona, Temple, Rutgers, Purdue and other big universities were working the same channels. Some of the U. applicants also were candidates elsewhere.
"Everybody is after the top-tier talent so we feel fortunate that we got two great finalists. The longer you go, more get picked off. There is a level of anxiousness to not dilly dally," said Martin, an expert in evaluating presidential talent.
And the national need for university leaders will only grow more intense with the graying of presidential ranks, according to Rich Novak, vice president for programs and research at the Association of Governing Boards. The average age among presidents is now 62 or 63, which portends a wave of retirements.
The committee culled the 80 candidates to 20 before beginning in-depth probes of their abilities and interviews. The goal was to select three to five that could cut it at the helm of a public research university.
"You look for individuals that have a probable fit at managing that level of complexity," Martin said. "The people we interviewed in person were a mixture of backgrounds, ethnicity, gender and academic disciplines. I was amazed. It was so cool that we had such a robust pool."
The committee forwarded four names to Regents, but two withdrew before being identified as finalists, leaving just Subbaswamy and Pershing for the $348,000 a year post. Martin pointed out that two presidential candidates for Utah Valley University dropped out at the same stage in 2009, leaving three named finalists.
"There's a whole new due diligence where the candidates shop us out as much as we shop them out. They have to make a judgment call," Martin said. "It's very fluid. The dance continues after the search committee recommends finalists."