This is the last week for our vice president for student services, who is departing to reunite his dual-career family in a city where both he and his wife can find satisfying professional opportunities. A few days ago, our athletic director announced her departure as well, so we will soon be undertaking searches for two major positions in the operation of the university.
Any search promotes a combination of optimism and anxiety. It is always interesting to read applications, make contacts, get to know candidates, and imagine an exciting future with the new hire or hires. In hiring senior leadership positions, I think both the optimism and the anxiety are magnified.
We are optimistic because we have good positions to offer. Our student-services operation is in solid shape: We are in the middle of a huge residence-hall renovation, we are installing a beautiful new state-of-the-art artificial turf field and track that will improve opportunities for football, soccer, track and field, and intramurals. We are working on a facility plan that should keep anyone engaged for several years to come.
In athletics, we participate in the Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, which is one of the stronger Division III athletic conferences. We have had some solid success lately in a few sports, including a heartbreaking trip to the Division III World Series just a couple of weeks ago. Athletics and academics have a cordial relationship, yet one that can be strengthened still further. Our facilities are good, and well maintained. We are in very strong shape financially.
So we are hopeful of attracting excellent candidates for both of these positions, and the prospect of such candidates is always exciting. No matter how strong the outgoing people have been, new blood and fresh perspectives can be a catalyst for doing things even better.
So why the anxiety? There are several sources, some specific to us and some broader in nature. Locally, my large and increasing concern is how prospective candidates view our location. Storm Lake and environs is a beautiful place (as I write, I look out at a cloud-dappled blue sky, thriving trees, grass, and flowers, and a clean and uncrowded parking lot; if I walked across the hall, I could see the lake).
However, it’s also a town of around 10,000 people over two hours’ drive from both Omaha and Des Moines (sadly underrated cities both), and for city people there’s not much around. It’s not easy to get in and out, and that challenge is significantly exacerbated by our four or five months of generally horrible weather during the winter. For some people this state of affairs is no problem, but for others, including a lot of really strong potential candidates, it’s an acute disadvantage for us.
More broadly, I am thinking about the nexus of senior executives and the housing market. Our outgoing vice president for student services still owns the house in his previous location that he couldn’t sell when he moved here. My wife and I still own a house in our previous location as well. The scuttlebutt I hear from my professional friends, as well as from search consultants and others in the know, is that the hiring market for senior leadership is partly frozen because of candidates’ fear that they won’t be able to sell their current houses. This is a problem not just for small colleges in rural Iowa, but for pretty much every institution seeking leadership positions right now.
For us, most faculty hiring is a little different because we almost always hire right at the entry level, and most candidates at that level don’t yet own a house. But when we are looking for people who are already head coaches, deans of students, or similar positions, the odds radically increase that they are established in a community and will have some trouble separating themselves from it.
Nevertheless, I will stick with optimism for the moment. We have a lot to offer, and for people for whom our location isn’t an absolute disqualification, when they come here and see the place and meet the people, they are often excited to come. We shall see.