Night Thoughts on Academic Searches

When a university, or any organization, and its recruiting firm set out to find a new leader, they usually begin and end in a delusion. They declare their intention to find the best person for the job and, once all the sorting and sifting are done, they announce that they have indeed found the best person for the job. The odds are they have done no such thing—and, more to the point, there is no way of knowing how good the last man or woman left standing after the interrogations, checking, and hazing really is. That is something the client and possibly the recruiter learn much later.

It would be more reasonable to look for—and then announce that we have found—a very good person, an excellent fit, a president or dean of wonderful potential. Of course, this sounds like hedging because, also of course, it is. It would be even better to say that we have found the best person available to us, we think. No one will want to say this. Everyone should. I know something about this.

When I applied for the presidency of The George Washington University, I was the committee’s second choice. The first turned them down, so I got the job. By their standards, I was not the best, but evidently the best available—or willing. No one knows or ever will know if over 19 years, I did the best job anyone could have done for GWU at that time. I grew the endowment and didn’t sink the ship. Considering the multiple presidents who have come and gone in recent years at Trinity College in Hartford and the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, not to mention the roster of distinguished administrators who lasted only a year or two as presidents at Cornell, Case Western Reserve, Colgate and the University of Hawaii, the GWU committee may conclude they chose well. They should also consider that they were lucky.

Luck is not the product of reason or of academic acuity. Yet it seems to me that, given the process by which new leaders in the Academy are chosen and the skewed, if not fully delusional, expectations erected around the process, getting the right person is the happenstance of a spin of the wheel of fortune. Let me offer some evidence.

Item A: A candidate’s curriculum vitæ is more or less a tombstone, a list of past accomplishments, while the client and the recruiter are looking toward the institution’s future. Thus, it is perfectly reasonable to demur that a list of eminent publications and lectures does not reveal how the candidate will go about fundraising or making peace between warring factions of faculty or dealing with stupefyingly drunken students. Even a candidate who has had experience as a senior administrator has been the executor, or at times the executioner, of a policy, not the creator of the policy. Yet the past is assumed to certify the future.

Item B: The process of winnowing candidates through the phases of broad search, screening, and final selection is by no means objective or guaranteed to be rational. Consider some examples. Through advertising, collegial recommendations, self-nomination and active recruitment, a pool of some 100 candidates materializes. Let us agree that 50 of them had no business applying for the job and are easy to dispose of. Then what? I was sitting in a screening session when a credible candidate’s papers were brought up. A member of the committee told us that a friend of his who works on the same campus as the candidate thinks he’s rather nasty and temperamental—and out he went. On hearsay, mind you, on a report no one else could substantiate and, worse, no one cared to substantiate. The reason for this is the bonding that goes on in such committees. We are doing this together, we want to be collegial, so better to accept hearsay than provoke an argument. Bonding has just trumped reason and equity.

Item C: Still in the screening phase, a member of the committee says we should disregard a candidate with admirable credentials because she has not attached a list of her publications. No matter that she is a chemist, and no one on the committee is a chemist and could reasonably judge the value of her scholarship. In this case, reason prevailed; a list of publications was produced—and no one read any of them or had anything to say on the subject.

Item D: The members of the committee are earnest and put in long hours evaluating the candidates on paper and in person. But they probably have never done anything like this before and will probably never do it again. They are amateurs, however well-meaning. (This effect is multiplied, or perhaps caricatured, when students, who have never worked, are given full-voice membership on the committee.) Yet they do not see themselves as amateurs—or perhaps adjuncts—and in many cases believe they are acting rationally and professionally while suspecting the recruiting firm of not really understanding what is at stake in the search. Recruiters like Korn/Ferry, where I am a partner, have various questions that are useful to ask from the earliest stages of the search through the final interviews: They have been devised and tested to reveal the qualities the search committee has said it wants or the absence of them. Academics, by and large, distrust such instruments, however, sensing a whiff of the social sciences when what they want is humanism, even though these two categories are artificial and do not speak to the value or the disability of the questionnaires. I confess I often had such suspicions.

Item E: The idea of a committee itself is subject to question. If the object is to find the best person and it turns out we haven’t, the blame—if there is any reason to blame and I’m not sure there is—is diffused, just as a bookie diffuses his risk by laying off bets. No one failed, but maybe the committee was laboring under impossibly contradictory instructions. The members of the committee may also agree that they want to find the best person, but their understandings of the best may have little in common. Some want a weak president, others a strong one, still others someone who will simply leave them alone or, most interesting of all, someone who will leave them alone and raise heaps of money for them and their programs. The larger the committee, the more abundant the agendas and the deeper the confusion.

Item F: The composition of a committee is likely to produce the right demographic optics, but not necessarily adequate experience in hiring. If the different academic disciplines, administrators, trustees, staff, students, alumni and neighbors all must be represented, the representation will look broad, but quite probably be shallow. This is akin to identity politics, not expertise.

Item G: Here I am repeating something I have said before about the interviewing phase. A candidate may be interviewed seriatim by various members of the committee or face a group. He or she may also give a presentation or several presentations to different campus constituencies. Whatever the permutation, the result is rather formal, fairly brief, and both the candidate and the committee want to make a good impression. They are on dating manners, and no one wants to rub anyone the wrong way. Yet a candidate—once chosen, installed and launched as a president or senior administrator—is going to be rubbed the wrong way every other day. Knowing how someone reacts to irritants is important information and could be revealed by a longer sojourn on campus rather than a parachute interview.

Enough evidence, and anyway I am sure that anyone who has been on either side of a search can add more. I hope I have made my case that the way we choose new leaders is full of unreasonable behavior in the face of unreasonable expectations of the best while the most likely and perfectly satisfactory outcome of a search is to find the best person available at the time to the institution—that is, the person who somehow meets the consensus expectation of the various members of the search committee, no matter how well or badly the search is conducted. This consensus must disregard (and usually doesn’t even contemplate) the strong possibility that the person best suited to the job never applied. Or the person the committee considered the best did not want the job, as it was in my case at GWU.

This is no cause for melancholy. First, an opening for a president or dean at a successful university will always attract good applicants and, at an unsuccessful one, at least a handful of buccaneers and high-wire artists willing to go up against the odds. Talent is available.

Second, before the first ad appears in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the institution needs to confer with the recruitment firm it has hired, give the recruiter a frank assessment of the school’s condition and aspirations, then listen to what these outsiders—who have no stake and own no turf—suggest. I emphasize this point not merely because I have gone over to the other side, but no less because someone outside the family is more likely to be objective and untrammeled by habit, prejudice or agenda. For this function alone, recruiters can earn their fee.

Third, trying to make the search committee broadly representative, as I have just characterized it, is looking for trouble. I propose engaging members of the university who have had experience in hiring and in interviewing. A committee with a disproportionate number of engineers or poets, but more experience in personnel, is preferable to a committee of the inexperienced that represents every imaginable constituency.

Fourth, and this seems obvious, the committee should be small.

Fifth, the search committee must keep in mind that it will finally be hiring a person it needs to trust, who is going to be the institution’s leader, but will also be a colleague, even if primus inter pares. They should not expect to find someone who will walk on water before breakfast—or whom they can walk all over at will. Sixth, if all goes well, the new leader will be around for at least 10 years. In my view, hiring a president for a shorter period is wasteful and will turn out to be disruptive. With this in mind, the committee members need to understand that the person they choose may outlast them on campus and will be dealing with realities—some of them unpleasant—that no one has foreseen or could.

Nothing here is complex or hard to grasp, and still it’s a tall order. Members of the search committee and the recruitment firm need to shed the Panglossian notion that they will find the best of all possible presidents for this best of all possible universities: They probably won’t. With a more rational process in hand, the work of finding the new leader should flow more smoothly and with greater mental comfort for everyone involved if only because the unreasonable expectations of the perfect, or the best, arising out of a necessarily imperfect activity can be put aside. The search will still be a great deal of work and perhaps never be completely satisfactory—some things are inevitable—but it will be better than it would have been otherwise. And if done well and right, there is a bonus: The members of the committee will not have to do it again.


Stephen J. Trachtenberg is president emeritus of The George Washington University and former president of the University of Hartford, now works with Korn/Ferry International.

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