As Classrooms Go Virtual, What About Campus-Leadership Searches?

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By Lucy Leske and Ann Yates

Spring is usually the height of search season in higher education. Institutions that began a leadership search in the fall find themselves facing tough decisions today. Just when their hiring committee was preparing to interview candidates face-to-face, or invite finalists to the campus, Covid-19 has brought everything nearly to a halt.

Should those searches be put on hold for a few weeks? Postponed indefinitely? Canceled altogether? Or should institutions push ahead with their hiring of new leaders?

At our search firm, we are fielding calls from boards and search committees looking for advice and answers. After consulting with colleagues, here follows our collective thinking on the options before us all.

Take deliberate steps forward. Without underestimating the seriousness of the current public-health crisis and its economic ramifications, institutions still need leadership — and for some, the sooner the better. Absent an obvious internal successor, the institution will still need to recruit from outside its ranks. Putting an important search on hold for an unknown period of time not only risks losing some of the best candidates in the pool, but also exacerbates the climate of uncertainty on the campus.

Deliberate, well-reasoned steps forward will help allay anxiety and reassure the campus that steady hands are (or soon will be) on the wheel. In short, there may be more risk in delaying the search than in carrying on with it, amid uncertainty. Sooner or later, campus life will get back to a new normal. We just don’t know when.

A crisis isn’t just disruptive. It’s also an opportunity to look for ways to adapt and improve processes in order to get the same, if not better, results. Things that search committees have long assumed must be done in person, for instance, may be able to migrate online.

To that end — just as institutions have asked faculty members to mobilize quickly and move their teaching online — we are helping clients adapt their search processes and keep moving forward. Our client colleges and universities will make decisions that are right for them and their circumstances, but most are choosing to forge ahead through a combination of innovative interview processes and technology.

When to press hold on your search. Depending on where your college or university is in the hiring process, your options may differ. For searches that are just starting, many of our clients are choosing to delay the start-up for at least a month or two, and wait for the worst of the health crisis to pass. That makes a lot of sense, given that most campuses seek broad input through open meetings and group sessions during the beginning of a leadership search. In our culture of shared governance, it is crucial to gather campus opinion on the selection criteria and expectations of the new hire. Leadership transition is an important time for community building.

That said, some institutions are now conducting preliminary meetings online in order to start their search before in-person meetings become possible. One way to start soliciting campus input on the search is via electronic surveys. Recruitment materials can be assembled in small groups.

Weeks or months from now — as restrictions on public gatherings begin to relax — campus groups can meet to provide input. Searches are iterative processes; a hiring committee can launch a search and absorb input along the way before making any final decision.

Advertising and candidate outreach can also take place now, although some institutions wonder how responsive candidates will be. After the economic crisis of 2008-9, we found increased reluctance among candidates to consider new positions. They were anxious about the financial implications of relocating and taking a new job in an economically unstable environment. We anticipate that those considerations could persist for some months after the immediate public-health crisis passes.

The most important thing for institutions and search consultants to do is to listen to, and document, candidate concerns (if any). Many of their fears about being a candidate in a time of crisis can be ameliorated through individual attention.

Certainly, candidate pools may be smaller than in the past. And it will take a lot of one-on-one attention to build the pools. But the mission in higher education is so strong; we believe that leaders will heed the call.

Migrate to technology. If your search has passed from the recruitment phase into candidate review and first-round interviews, it is possible to stick to your timeline by proceeding with electronic file review using password-protected, web-based platforms and online search-committee meetings. Technology has improved vastly just in the past few years. Nearly every campus and executive-search firm has web-based file-review capacity. There is no need to visit a copier; laptops and electronic tablets are effective substitutes for paper notebooks.

Committees can convene in small groups in any number of video-equipped classrooms or conference rooms on campus, and most committee members have experience with some sort of visual technology via their home or office computers. And who hasn’t used FaceTime? Professors serving on the search committee already are comfortable with the basics of online teaching (or soon will be), and many trustees are quite skilled in global conferencing. Those techniques and tools are easily adapted to search-committee meetings.

Likewise, best practices in logistics, web-based document sharing, and electronic polling are easily adapted to a leadership search. Even we baby boomers have learned how to set up electronic polling of committee members using simple applications in real time during meetings. If we can do it, you can, too.

Video is increasingly common for first-round interviews. Not only does it save considerable cost, wear, and tear, the technology can accommodate committee members in multiple locations, especially those who want to participate from home or adhere to social distancing.

Our colleague, Philip Tang, a former vice provost and an expert on online learning and digital education, frequently leads searches for chief online learning officers. Well before this pandemic, he was conducting first-round interviews by video 100 percent of the time. People who were convinced that no suitable proxy exists for a face-to-face interview, he said, are consistently surprised by how effective a virtual interview can be. Moreover, he added, the presumption that a video interview inherently disadvantages a candidate is false.

"It’s true that a candidate might not be able to make out the face of each individual committee member on screen, but that can have its advantages, too," Tang said. "A tech-savvy candidate can ensure that she is clearly visible and audible while comfortably situated in a familiar environment. Compare that to flying across country, waiting in a holding room, and then being led into a conference room where you’re seated at a large table surrounded by 20 search-committee members who ask you about your vision and leadership style for the next 75 minutes."

In fact, search committees might want to test how comfortable candidates are on video. After all, tomorrow’s higher-education leaders will likely be working online more, not less.

Consider major changes at the finalist phase, too. One of our clients is moving forward with virtual finalist interviews. The virtual-visit schedule will mirror the one the finalists would have done in person, with the same people and groups invited to participate, albeit via technology.

There are even ways to mimic the open forums that are typical, and very important, during an on-campus hiring process. That requires preplanning and coordination — such as asking candidates to give a prepared presentation, having participants submit questions in advance, or allowing questions in real time through a moderator. Recording these sessions will allow campus stakeholders to view them later.

Ultimately, the idea is that once a top candidate has been identified through the virtual-finalist visits, the institution will focus on bringing that person — and family, if appropriate — to the campus, a process that is more easily and safely done when the pool is down to just one.

The practical value of all of these stopgap solutions is really aimed at meeting the campus needs for inclusion and participation in candidate evaluation, albeit virtually. What institutions need to remember is the importance of this last phase to the candidates, many of whom have never been physically on the campus and as such are not yet fully invested in the place or the position. A largely virtual search still needs to sell the campus and its culture to the finalists.

Stay in touch with candidates. Whether you try to do your search virtually, or postpone it indefinitely, the challenge is to keep candidates engaged, especially the ones you hope will persist to the finalist stage.

After the first-round interviews for a key administrative position at one institution, we recommended that the president use video to call candidates individually, answer questions, and cultivate their interest in the opportunity. The search committee co-chairs did the same, and added to the candidates’ body of knowledge and interest by sharing additional information about the campus.

We were just about to set up campus visits for the finalist when the state imposed travel restrictions. So the committee’s job, over the next two months, is to stay in touch with candidates weekly to make sure they still feel wanted. Plan your communication strategy and assign people to keep in touch with candidates during the delay in the hiring process.

Accept delays. None of these approaches is without pitfalls or pain points, but, given our changed reality, they may become a necessary practice. The good news here is that, with the use of technology, institutions may be able to move more quickly and add additional interview stages to the hiring process — not to mention realize significant cost savings.

No one can predict how long this global health crisis will last or if it will truly end. Once restrictions are eased, the window to conduct in-person meetings and interviews could potentially be quite short if a new wave of infections hits next winter. As searches are delayed into summer, institutions will want to consider the inevitable impact on the search such as candidate attrition, delayed start dates, or interim appointments.

We are in uncharted territory, but we are in it together. Our changed reality will require a nimbleness in thinking and approach as well as the ability to pivot. Despite the challenges, we believe it is possible to come to a successful search conclusion even if the road traveled to get there is new.

Lucy Leske and Ann Yates are senior partners in the education practice of the executive search firm WittKieffer. They lead nationwide searches for presidents, provost, deans, and vice presidents at colleges and universities.

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