Sorry, Headhunters, but the Healthiest Presidential Searches Are Open

Full vitae sorry headhunters

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By Kevin Dettmar and Sam Glick 

A decade ago, members of a campus search committee pretty well knew the game plan for picking a president. Hire a search firm to help develop the applicant pool. Screen the applications and conduct a round of off-campus, "airport" interviews with promising candidates. Invite a shortlist of three or four finalists to the campus for daylong interviews. And finally, recommend someone (or present a ranking) to the full Board of Trustees.

But at some point in the last decade — in the time since 2003, when our institution, Pomona College, hired its ninth president, and 2016, when we began a search for his successor — an important step in that process had changed radically across higher education. So radically, in fact, that it’s just gone.

Increasingly, institutions of higher education select a president without the candidates ever having met with any faculty members, students, and staff members beyond the few who sit on the search committee. In 2003 it would have flown in the face of convention to argue that the identities of finalists should be kept confidential. Today, however, the default setting of most presidential searches seems to be "closed."

And while a closed process conveys obvious benefits for finalists — and, arguably, collateral benefits for search firms — we believe it’s a very bad way to hire leaders for colleges and universities.

In his recent commentary, "Sorry, Professors, but Presidential Searches Should Be Secret,"Matthew Tzuker goes to great lengths to defend a foregone conclusion. He "revisits" all of his arguments against open searches only to discover … that he was right all along. But his arguments miss the point. By focusing on his own professional process, Tzuker loses sight of what presidential searches really represent.

Tzuker insists that the choice of an open or closed search rests with boards (or more properly, the search committees empaneled by boards), yet he goes on to blame faculty members for insisting on open searches, accusing them of mistrusting their colleagues on the search committee and holding an antiquated view of how academic institutions should be run.

In positioning the choice of open versus closed as one of risky public spectacle versus sensible hiring process, Tzuker reduces a presidential search to nothing more than a series of job interviews. Yet it is much, much more.

Undoubtedly, closed searches are easier, and seemingly lower risk:

  • The search committee doesn’t risk losing candidates.
  • The candidates don’t risk reputational damage.
  • And the search firm doesn’t risk an uncontrolled process, or damaging its relationships with candidates by repeatedly exposing them as "on the market." The risk mitigation in all of those instances, however, is illusory. In the end, the biggest risk to the campus, the candidate, and the search firm is not a breach of confidentiality, but rather, a failed presidency owing to a bad fit.

Our recent leadership search at Pomona turned into a hybrid. While our previous presidential searches had been entirely public, at the outset of this endeavor we agreed on a different approach: Candidates would be told that (1) the initial stages of the search would be conducted in confidence and (2) the committee had not yet decided whether or not the final campus interviews would be open to faculty, students, staff, and alumni. If a candidate had concerns about confidentiality, they could drop out at any stage of the process.

By the time we had to make a decision, the search committee agreed that an open process was the only mechanism consistent with the values of our institution. It was a conclusion that emerged quite organically. Three highly qualified finalists came to the campus, and met in town-hall meetings that were open to all interested faculty members, trustees, staff employees, alumni, and even students but closed to the news media (to protect the candidates from blowback at their home institutions).

The conversations that ensued — substantive, existential conversations about what a liberal-arts education should be — both reflected and subsequently helped to shape our culture. We asked everyone to respect the risk these candidates were taking by not publicizing their visits via email or social media, and to refrain from conducting their own "reference checks." And despite literally hundreds of people meeting our three candidates, we heard not a single report of a leak. We respected our community, and they respected our candidates in turn.

We write this having worked with a terrific search firm, Spencer Stuart. Without pushing too hard, and without scaremongering, our consultants did raise the concern that an open search might put off some desirable candidates. And maybe it did — we will never know. But as a result of the open town halls, our final candidates proved that they thought the opportunity to lead our college was worth the risk of their interest in the job becoming public. They had good-enough relationships with their current boards and presidents to share that they were being considered for a college presidency.

Once informed of our decision to hold open town-hall meetings, none of the finalists chose to leave the search. We didn’t "lose" our best candidate: Reader, we hired her.

In asking presidential finalists to participate in open meetings, we were certainly asking them to risk something — it was a big request. But they weren’t the only ones making sacrifices. If we were asking for something out of the ordinary from our candidates, we were willing to give of ourselves in return: Before inviting any finalists to campus, we flew out small groups of search-committee members for individual conversations with a long list of nearly two dozen candidates. We invested time not only in getting to know them, but in helping them get to know our institution in the comfort of their own homes and offices.

We did our best to help them experience our values from their very first interactions with us. As a result, when we extended invitations to the campus, they already understood why.

At the end of his essay, Tzuker suggests that closed searches — which he insists on calling "confidential" searches, even as he acknowledges that such legerdemain is essentially "just marketing" — build confidence in the candidate selected. While he’s got the etymology right, we think he’s got the psychology completely wrong.

Presidential searches constitute a moment in the life of an institution in which confidence is at a premium. Whether the departing president is leaving after a long and successful tenure or a short and tempestuous one, the institution — its students, faculty, staff, administration, alumni, and yes, trustees — are anxious about what the future will hold. And true confidence is restored by an open search.

Rather than insisting on "transparency," Tzuker argues, professors should "have some degree of confidence in parties other than themselves to make a good choice." We can’t speak to whether the entire campus community had confidence in us as their representatives on the search committee (though the members were all elected by their peers). But they would have had every right to question our decision-making if we had dared to make an appointment as important as president without gathering plenty of data on how they felt about their interactions with the candidates.

We concede that this is perhaps more important in a small liberal-arts college like ours than it might be at a large research university: Professors here prize their close working relationship with the president (whereas I, Kevin, literally never met the presidents of the two research institutions where I taught previously for 17 years).

Maybe our presidential-search process won’t work for every institution. Yet there are lessons in it that we believe are broadly applicable. Search committees must design processes that reflect their values, put their shoulders to the wheel in vetting candidates, and resist the urge just to do what’s "industry standard." They must acknowledge the hard reality that one-on-one or small-group interviews are poor indicators of a candidate’s future performance, and create opportunities to see the candidates in action — including, yes, in unstructured interactions with various campus groups.

With increasingly fractured campus cultures and declining presidential tenures, clearly colleges can do better in picking leaders — including by embracing a search process that is at least partially open.

Kevin Dettmar is a professor of English at Pomona College. Sam Glick is chair of the college’s Board of Trustees.


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