• September 21, 2014

You Don't Need a Search Firm to Hire a President

You Don’t Need a Search Firm to Hire a President 1

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

David Riesman, the eminent Harvard sociologist, who died in 2002, devoted part of his work to academic leadership and the search process. He had seen my sardonic writings on the subject and, in a memorable moment for me, wrote to ask if I had anything new in the works. He took note of my service as a provost for many years and wrote, "I presume that you do not want to be a president."

In the course of my career, I had been a candidate several times for administrative positions and had served as a participant in scores of searches as a faculty member, department chair, dean, and provost. While many of my personal experiences were painful, over all my sardonic mode prevailed, buttressed by my love for a line from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice: "you shall seek all day ere you find them, and when you have them, they are not worth the search."

Now, many years into retirement, I continue to smile at the increasingly convoluted drama of hiring for presidents—and now just about every leadership position. The entire process, managed by a horde of costly "search consultants," has developed partly out of legal and policy requirements regarding inclusiveness, but mainly out of the all-too-human perception that out there somewhere, someone superior to anyone already on campus awaits the call of greatness. These mysterious people are thought to be known to search firms that have rooms full of Rolodexes and computers full of databases chockablock with the names of reluctant candidates whose ambitions just need a nudge.

Yet there is no evidence that the use of a search firm improves the quality or longevity of administrative leaders compared with those chosen the old-fashioned way, by an internal committee, the board of trustees, or the appointing officer based on crony politics. The same lack of evidence applies to the promotion of inside candidates. David Riesman suggested that people tend to undervalue insiders that they know, and to longingly await the brilliant, good-looking stranger who captures the room by storm.

The late Georgetown University president Timothy S. Healy called it "looking for ‘God on a good day.’ " The high turnover rate among campus leaders and the frequently told stories of searches gone awry suggest to me that the number of "good days" is limited. I have some bad-day stories­—bizarre, humorous, and hurtful—that have lingered with me for decades.

A recent story in The Chronicle recharged those warm feelings. It told of a prominent search consultant who resigned after an unusual no-confidence vote by the Faculty Senate of a major state university. The issue revolved around an increasingly common tendency of candidates to emerge out of state politics with dramatic impact on the search process. The resigned consultant said, "There was such paranoia here … they interpreted us as being part of a cabal" to hire a politician instead of an academic leader.

In fact, a number of well-known universities have former governors, state legislative leaders, and federal politicians as their presidents.

The search consultant called the faculty action "ridiculous" and "reckless and unfounded," and condemned the "intrinsic suspicion on the part of some constituents" of search firms. He said he was "mystified at how we got to be the focus of some attention."

Really? For starters, the consultant conceded that "we get paid a lot of money." His latent feelings about faculty members emphasized that search consultants are hired by and report to the board of trustees, often diminishing the influence of traditional campus constituencies.

Underlying the perceived necessity for a search firm is the notion that each college is unique, a highly dubious proposition. The Carnegie classification of institutions recognizes differences between state flagships and major private universities, state colleges and regional institutions, liberal-arts colleges and technical schools. There are obvious differences in size and reputation, but missions are widely shared, or else we could not claim a higher-education societal purpose or create professional associations.

Nevertheless, the search firm seeks out that "uniqueness" within the categories, often after a costly "institutional-needs analysis" to help define the position and the characteristics needed to fill it.

Several years ago I perused ads in The Chronicle to develop a brief list of commonly cited characteristics desired of candidates for almost any job. Here they are: the ability to articulate a vision, a collaborative working style, capacity to lead and inspire diverse groups, a commitment to excellence, superb communication skills, distinguished scholarly and professional achievement, well-developed interpersonal skills, an ability to work effectively with a wide range of constituents, and a commitment to diversity.

Given the huge number of applications that many ads attract, it is comforting to know the easy availability of people with a commitment to excellence and an abundance of natural charm.

But seriously, the reality is that the pool of likely candidates for major posts is quite small. Higher education is a ruthlessly stratified enterprise, and you will not get a position at an Ivy League or equivalent high-ranking college in any category unless your educational pedigree includes those institutions. Conversely, it is not unusual for lesser-ranked colleges to wonder, when a candidate appears from a higher-ranked campus, "Why would she want to come here?" I once had the pleasure to tell a failed dean candidate from a prominent university who entreated me to explain his failure that "you acted like you were doing us a favor by interviewing here."

Contrary to the search-consultant pretense that candidates need to be pulled out of the woodwork, the applicant pool is limited to a few potential leaders at colleges similar to the searching institution who are at a certain stage of their careers and likely or widely known to be "on the market." Moreover, smart seekers are aware of potentially suitable vacancies, and know about the institution and a few of its major figures and the likelihood of making the final cut. Their chances of getting on the shortlist are enhanced by a limited and careful targeting of possibilities.

So, you see, it should be sufficient for an ad to read simply, "Wanted: President," with the name of the institution. Applicants could be evaluated according to the knowledge revealed about the institution and the noting of relevant personal qualifications. Colleges have sufficient talent, academic and otherwise, to carry out the functions of a reasonable search with adherence to public-policy requirements, without the time and expense of search-firm mythologies.

Incidentally, Riesman was right about me, and Shakespeare was right about searches.

Milton Greenberg is an emeritus professor of government at American University, where he served as provost and interim president.

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