When it comes to filling the highest posts of higher education, Bill Funk is the reigning king of the hill.
The 64-year-old principal of R. William Funk Associates in Dallas has placed a new president or chancellor nearly every month for the last two years. He’s filled 21 top spots at such big-name universities as Purdue, Clemson, Louisiana State, the University of Southern California, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Rutgers and Ohio State.
Funk may have as much influence on the direction of higher education as anyone in this country. During 32 years as a headhunter, Funk has placed nearly 400 presidents and chancellors. Add in provosts, vice presidents and deans, and that number tops 1,000.
Funk went out on his own eight years ago after heading the worldwide higher education practice of Korn/Ferry International. His 10-person firm, located above the Starbucks in Highland Park Village, is on track to bring in nearly $5 million in 2014.
You can say goodbye to Mr. Chips, the beloved fictional teacher who was made headmaster because everybody loved him, Funk says.
“Presidents are looked at as CEOs,” he says. “The biggest challenge in higher ed is financial, finding resources. They’re running against the wall of tuition. How much more tuition can you charge?”
Funk does his searches on fixed retainers that normally run between $120,000 and $150,000 for a president or chancellor.
Based on trust
Funk’s education was eclectic: He has a degree in political science from a state teaching college near Pittsburgh, a year of law at Duquesne University, a master’s in government from Ohio University, 21 credits toward a doctorate in political science and an MBA from Purdue University.
In 1975, he joined the “soft side” of Exxon USA in Houston — government and human relations.
In 1982, the search firm Heidrick Struggles hired Funk as managing partner of its Houston office and put his Exxon pedigree to work during the oil boom. That was fine and dandy until the bust.
Higher education recruitment became his new revenue stream.
Funk is widely known in education circles but little recognized outside of it. His business is cloaked in secrecy, based on trust that word won’t get out about who’s being considered and why.
Never was that more true than the just-completed search at Ohio State. The Columbus campus wanted someone with a medical background and experience running a major health science center. It also wanted to hire someone from a fellow member of the prestigious Association of American Universities.
Talk about your limited applicant pool. Funk found five people who fit the bill and were willing to be considered.
They were secretly flown in on NetJets to be interviewed by a handful of board members.
Michael Drake, chancellor of the University of California at Irvine, was the hands-down choice. Funk enticed him to take the Ohio State job and earned $220,000 for his effort.
Drake, who’s been on campus since July 1, says he took the $1 million-a-year job largely because of Funk.
“Bill exudes sincerity and honesty,” Drake says. “As a candidate, you’re putting yourself out there, exposing yourself. The committee is making what is often one of the most important decisions they’ll make in their lives. Having an honest broker in the middle of that process is critically important. Bill’s done a great job at that.”
Until recently, Funk has operated mostly in the background.
But two months ago, Funk made headlines in The Chronicle of Higher Education and Florida news outlets after he abruptly resigned from a presidential search at Florida State University.
Funk had agreed to do the search in March, not realizing there was a presumptive candidate waiting in the wings — 70-year-old John Thrasher, a strong political figure in Florida whose name is on FSU’s medical school building.
Faculty members who wanted an academician and not a politician were furious about a possible Thrasher appointment. The faculty senate accused Funk of either being an unwitting shill or a co-conspirator with the search committee to get Thrasher on board.
Funk wanted no part of a sham search or a faculty firestorm, so he ended his work in Tallahassee without giving his reasons.
He’s willing to talk about it now because he feels vindicated by subsequent media reports and an editorial in the Tallahassee Democrat that pointed out he was the good guy in the messy brouhaha.
Since Funk’s departure, another search firm has come in and is still working to fill the post.
“I could never understand how I became the target of such animosity,” Funk says. “I was the one S.O.B. who was trying to do an honest search there.”
Funk wasn’t asked to run the search for a new chancellor of the University of Texas System — a fact that miffs him.
“It’s not false bravado,” he says. “We’ve recruited presidents and chancellors to two-thirds of the public AAU members in the last 15 years. And we don’t at least get called? It’s amazing to me.”
Wheless Partners was the firm that conducted the UT search, and Adm. William McRaven was named sole finalist last week.
Funk hasn’t done much work on his home turf lately because the sitting leaders at Southern Methodist University, the University of North Texas System, Texas Christian University and the University of Texas at Dallas are all his placements who’ve worked out well.
Funk says there have only been a handful of placements that haven’t ended satisfactorily.
One of the strangest failures was when Geoffrey Orsak, the former dean of engineering at SMU, was named president of the University of Tulsa two years ago.
The university fired Orsak after just 74 days and gave no reason. Orsak moved his family back to Dallas and declined to talk about it.
“Geoffrey was an amazing talent,” Funk says. “I don’t know to this day what happened in Tulsa. It remains one of the great mysteries of my career.”
In January, Orsak became a partner with Falcon Fund Ltd., a hedge fund in Preston Center focused on emerging bioscience companies.
Orsak still doesn’t want to talk about what happened. “When you do as many prominent searches as Bill, not all of the matches work out for both parties.”
Funk gets vicarious pleasure when one of his recruits does particularly well.
In 2001, Funk placed Donna Shalala, then U.S. secretary of health and human services for the Clinton administration, as president of the University of Miami.
“In one year, she improved Miami’s status by 26 slots on the U.S. News World Report list. That’s pretty gratifying to be part of something like that.”
Greg Brown, chairman and CEO of Motorola Solutions in Chicago, says he worked “shoulder to shoulder” with Funk to find a new president for Rutgers University in 2012.
“Bill is a seasoned professional,” Brown says. “His instincts are great. He can cut through bureaucracy and get right to the heart of the matter. And he’s got a very good sense of humor.”
That, says Brown, came in handy more than a time or two.
Title: Principal, R. William Funk Associates
Born: Uniontown, Pa. Dad was a coal mine pit boss who died when Bill was 2; his mother, a fifth-grade teacher, raised three children.
Education: Undergraduate degree in political science, California University of Pennsylvania, 1972; master’s in government, Ohio University, 1974; MBA from Purdue University, 1976.
Personal: Married to Ann Marie for 39 years, two adult sons