University of Louisville paid an academic search firm $65,000 plus expenses to find a new general counsel, but school records provide little detail about the company’s actual work vetting the candidates.
Last week, U of L’s Board of Trustees welcomed Leslie Chambers Strohm as the school’s new vice president for strategy and general counsel. She’ll earn $350,000 a year to advise President James Ramsey on strategic issues and oversee all legal activities for U of L.
Angela Koshewa retired last year as U of L general counsel after she received a settlement and signed a non-disparagement agreement for reasons that remain unclear. Now, Strohm brings her own baggage to the job after several high-profile scandals that occurred during her tenure at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, including academic fraud and the handling of sexual assault cases on campus.
Documents obtained by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting through public records requests turned up little information about Strohm’s vetting beyond a cover letter, resume and a copy of her schedule when she visited campus in September. Many of the other records provided by the school were emails from employees confirming their attendance at meetings scheduled with Strohm.
Academic Search Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based firm that has completed more than 340 presidential, provost and dean searches in the past five years, produced no final report or written recommendation. Names of finalists were given to Ramsey verbally, university spokesman Mark Hebert said.
“We paid a search firm to go do this search, do all the background on these candidates for us, and they came back with information about all of these candidates — did background on every one of them — and came back with the final three for Dr. Ramsey to decide who was going to be the next VP, and it was Leslie Strohm,” Hebert said.
Ramsey was “fully aware of everything that happened at UNC” and believes Strohm is an outstanding candidate, Hebert explained.
Strohm declined to talk about her work at UNC in detail, citing attorney-client privilege. She did say she was comfortable with how she handled things.
According to university records, Academic Search was responsible for verifying resumes, employment and salary history, contacting references, and providing complete background investigations of candidates, including criminal records checks and litigation history.
The university’s records custodian withheld some documents from public view, citing exemptions in Kentucky’s open records law, including one that allows exclusion of preliminary drafts and another for “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” The withheld records include emails and correspondence that contained recommendations and opinions about candidates because they were not “the final action in the matter.” Other records related to unsuccessful candidates were also withheld.
KyCIR asked specifically for any records Academic Search provided about Strohm’s work at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where she was vice chancellor and general counsel. There, she was a member of the senior management team and advised university officials on issues such as budget cuts, campus safety and civil rights.
Strohm was general counsel at UNC during several controversies, according to reports in the News & Observer newspaper in Raleigh, N.C., involving academic fraud and the handling of sexual assaults on campus.
In October 2014, UNC announced the results of an independent investigation into academic irregularities at the school. The inquiry determined that two people in the department formerly known as the African and Afro-American Studies had offered hundreds of classes between 1993 and 2011 that had no class attendance or faculty involvement. About 47 percent of students enrolled in those classes were student athletes, according to the report.
In response, the university made a number of changes, including adding faculty to a group that reviews student-athlete eligibility and progress toward a degree.
Students also filed a complaint against Strohm in 2013 alleging that the general counsel’s office deliberately under-reported sexual assaults on campus, according to the News & Observer. Strohm has said the allegations were false.
That complaint, filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, is still pending, according to the school.
Hebert, U of L’s spokesman, said Strohm successfully refuted the allegations at UNC and that the firm conducted an inquiry regarding the controversies there. He said the investigation was the firm’s job to handle.
“The search firm did its job,” he said. “That’s what we paid them to do, to go ahead and do those reports and put those together. They’re employed by us to do that. The university does not have those records.”
Hebert said the search firm did not provide written reports or documents to U of L.
“I believe it was just all verbal,” he said. “And that’s a normal process… There isn’t necessarily going to be anything in writing.”
Invoices from Academic Search Inc. don’t shed light on the firm’s investigation of Strohm’s past work either.
One, dated April 30, 2014, shows U of L’s first (of three equal) payments to the firm — for $21,666 — was for “organizing the search process, meeting with the search committee and other campus constituents to analyze institutional needs and develop the position profile and advertising strategy.”
The second installment, in June 2014, included the “cost of recruiting the candidate pool, facilitating the selection of semi-finalists and neutral site interviews.” The final payment, in July of the same year, included compensation for “selection of finalists” and “facilitation of the appointment.”
Shawn Hartman, vice president for administration and finance for Academic Search, said the company adheres to the highest standards and best ethical practices of the profession but declined to comment on any of its work for U of L specifically. He referred inquiries to the university.
Michael Spiro, director of finance recruiting for Experis, said what clients want runs the gamut so having no written reports isn’t uncommon. Some want a list of candidates over the phone, he said. Others want detailed written reports.
“If I was recommending a client hire someone who had a history of controversy that anybody could open up a newspaper and read about, I would want to make sure that I was armed with all the information to be able to say: ‘Even though this stuff is certainly well known and anybody could read about it or hear about it, here are the reasons why this person is still worth hiring.’ ”
University of Kentucky used a similar search firm, Illinois-based Witt Kieffer, two years ago to find a new provost. The school paid $108,000 for the search, and the company did not produce a written report.
“Every search is different, and the search committee typically sets the parameters for what they want from the firm,” said UK spokesman Jay Blanton. “Activities can involve a number of things, including the job advertisement, initial screening, interviews and helping cull down the candidates, background checks etc.”
Last Thursday afternoon, Strohm stood before the U of L trustees at her first board meeting and talked about how she realized in the first 10 minutes of talking to President Ramsey that U of L was a special place.
“I would say to anybody: If you want to see what leadership and innovation and vision and collaboration can accomplish, come here,” she said. “And that’s a big part of why I am here.”
Reporter Kristina Goetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (502) 814.6546.
Disclosure: In October 2014, the University of Louisville, which for years has donated to Louisville Public Media, earmarked $10,000 to KyCIR as part of a larger LPM donation. Also, KyCIR has a pending civil lawsuit against the university regarding public records.