If a camel is a horse designed by committee, what, then, is a university president? After all, a president, while not built by committee, is certainly anointed by one.
Even by the standards of higher education, presidential search committees are odd concoctions, combining the dynamics of the governing board, the faculty, the administration and staff, and the students in an environment that is, at best, unusual and, at worst, adversarial. Ultimately, however, that committee's work is vital to the future of the institution.
In the healthiest institutions, those groups seldom interact with one another in the sort of deliberative environment, and with the level of intimacy, demanded by the roles and responsibilities of a search committee.
Add to that mix a recruitment expert who is almost always an outsider -- i.e., a search consultant -- and you have the flint and the tinder in unreasonably close proximity.
Without careful advance planning, the early meetings of a search committee made up of people from those various constituencies can be fraught with a certain level of apprehension and tension.
Board members, for example, often assume that professors live in a sort of alien world, one in which decision-making entails endless study and ad nauseum discussion, and one in which consensus is an absolute requirement and unanimity a laudable goal. At a recent meeting, a board chairman opined that his trustee colleagues on the search committee would not only find the academic mode of hiring foreign but also that they would never undertake such a process in their own businesses. That was a stunningly impolitic statement. It was also generally accurate.
Faculty members, for their part, almost never believe that trustees know anything about the central nature of academic life. Professors frequently assume that the board thinks of the university only as another kind of corporation, with customers instead of students, products instead of programs, and outcomes that can be expressed only in terms of balanced budgets.
Thus, faculty members on presidential search committees are generally asked by their constituents to guard against any inclination on the part of the board to base the committee's work on the premise that a university is a business. The potential for those two cultures to clash hovers over (at least) the early meetings of a search committee.
Students have the most immediate sense of the institution, living it intensely for a relatively brief time that many will come to consider a seminal period in their lives. But they tend to be the least well-informed members of the committee (although they seldom realize that is the case), both in terms of the organizational and fiscal structures that undergird the institution and the current and prospective circumstances that might affect those structures. Students in a search-committee environment also tend to be deferential to their elders—who are, in this case, nearly every other member of the committee.
The combination of deference, relative ignorance, and intense passion for the campus can make students confused by, and conflicted about, their role on the committee -- no matter how bright or independent they are as individuals.
In some ways administrators and staff members have it most difficult of all. While they are frequently the best informed on the day-to-day operations of the university, they have no particular unified constituency to represent on the search committee. Faculty members often lump them in with the trustees as businesspeople; trustees equate them with the faculty as being more interested in process than in outcomes; and students think of them as yet another group of elders who bring neither passion nor contemporary perspective to the problem at hand.
How, then, does that disparate group of representatives come together to form a cohesive unit in pursuit of one of the most important tasks any institution must undertake -- choosing its leader?
Most of the answer is found by looking at the committee members from the perspective of what they have in common:
They all care deeply about the institution and have acted upon that sentiment in some evident way. Why else would they have been named to the committee?
Each has been chosen to bring to the committee's deliberations both a significant body of knowledge about the university and superior judgment.
Each is there as a representative of a group of significant stakeholders in the institution.
What the members of the search committee share must be brought to light early in the search process. It provides the starting point for discussion leading to a common understanding of purpose, which can, in turn, lead to a unified approach and, ultimately, to a consensus on the best candidate.
Keys to Success
One of the keys to a positive search-committee dynamic is simply open and candid discussion. How do members of the committee choose to express themselves? Who is a talker and who is a listener? Who demands attention and who deserves it? How successful will the head of the committee be at keeping the conversation productive and focused on the task at hand?
The requirements of the presidency are always a good topic to generate lively conversation. In fact, as search consultants, we can usually engage the entire group initially with one question: "Is it a requirement of the position that for serious consideration a candidate must possess an earned terminal degree and a record of scholarship, teaching, and service sufficient to merit tenure at this institution?"
A question like that is critical to resolve before the search reaches the marketplace. In fact, without the answer, a committee can hardly define that marketplace.
That question leads to a multitude of opinions on other questions, too. What constitutes a terminal degree? Is a Ph.D. the only acceptable one? What about an Ed.D.? A J.D.? An M.F.A.? What about tenure? Should the candidate only be tenured at the rank of full professor? Does that mean the search committee and the trustees could reach a strong consensus on a president only to have it derailed by an academic department that won't accept the candidate as a tenured member? Can boards override such a decision? Should they?
Most of the search's tough questions should be handled at the outset. How should the desired skills, experiences, and talents of the next president be prioritized? What challenges will he or she face? For faith-based institutions, must the candidate of choice be a practitioner of that faith? What personal and professional qualities, experiences, or characteristics are simply disqualifying?
In short, what must we have in a president and what must we not have?
Because a presidential search provides a glimpse into the institution's self-image -- which is both fascinating and informative -- difficult questions must galvanize the committee for its work.
Generally, an evolution takes place in the discourse. At the same meeting noted above, the conversation about academic requirements began with faculty members prepared to defend to the death the necessity of a scholarly peer in the presidency. The board members there were equally adamant not to allow business acumen to play second fiddle to academic credentials. As usual, both sides -- and the others who were drawn into the discussion -- viewed the issue as a zero-sum game, as though people could only be one or the other.
As the discussion wore on, however, it became clear that both sides were learning from each other. Positions softened. Requirements started to be expressed as desires. Definitions were reached that garnered strong consensus. The words that would ultimately be used to define the requirements of the job began to be used and vetted.
Most important, the committee began to think and act as a unified entity. It began to conceive of itself not as a group of individuals drawn together to represent various constituencies but rather as a unit charged by a great number of people with a formidable task. Consultants see that happen time and time again at all sorts of institutions and with committees of various membership.
The political philosopher Edmund Burke wrote, "Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion." A search committee is only secondarily a body made up of the representatives of various groups, however important or powerful; it is at its core a body made up to represent only the best interests of the institution as a whole. It may still design a camel, but it will be one that the whole university can ride.