By Cary Aaron Reed
A few years ago, I was closing in on a decade as a college president, serving in a state system that had been through a series of public controversies. The fallout for me and several other system leaders: union opposition and/or faculty no-confidence votes. As I looked around, I saw talented and experienced peers leaving their posts under duress and finding it nearly impossible to land another leadership position in higher education.
Others, like me, were stuck in no-win situations. Unpopular but necessary decisions we’d made to aid our institutions had turned us into the villains. I was ready to move on — to the right college, the right situation — but would I ever get another opportunity?
All of that came back to mind last fall, after I read an essay in The Chronicle, "When Taking One for the Team Leaves a Permanent Mark," written by Dennis Barden, a search consultant. It was about leaders who made tough decisions on a campus and paid a high price for it. They carried a mark they couldn’t shake — most commonly in the form of negative publicity or blame for layoffs and cutbacks — and it brought their administrative career in academe to a screeching halt.
Barden argued that trustees miss out on getting the kind of proven leadership their institution badly needs because they are too afraid to hire a "marked" applicant. His essay wasn’t defending weak, incompetent, or unethical presidents — it was defending those who are decisive, responsible, and tested leaders, precisely because they’ve had to make tough decisions that, however unpopular, were in the institutional interest. Yet that very background often leads search committees to decide such a candidate is too much of a hiring risk.
I am writing this essay — under a pseudonym so that I can be completely candid — for the person sitting in the spot I once occupied.
Regardless of what your situation involved — an unhappy faculty union, a board in turmoil, a low campus morale, a dicey financial situation, a major reform that was internally mismanaged — know that value has been generated from those experiences. The hard things you did for the good of the college may have been public, debated, and even loathed, but my own story is evidence that it is possible to move on.
Outlined here are five steps I took to emerge from the shadow of a campus controversy. The effort required a lot of discipline, intensity, and brutal honesty. The result, though, helped me land a presidency on a campus I love where my experience and strengths are seen as a value — not a cost.
Step No. 1: Craft your narrative. One of Stephen Covey’s "seven habits of highly effective people" is to "begin with the end in mind." For an embattled or ousted campus executive, the endgame is a job offer on a new campus. To reach that point, you will need to get very good at explaining yourself and your situation.
Start by assessing your role and experiences. Then consider how your career path, so far, will make you an asset at a new institution. Reflect on what went awry and what you would do differently if given the chance. Get comfortable discussing some of the most challenging and dark moments of your professional life, and be prepared to share your story over and over with many audiences throughout the interview process.
A word of caution as you construct your narrative: Do not blame anyone else for your situation. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of casting fault on other parties. After all, you’ve been getting the lion’s share of the blame (deserved or not) for months. So you might feel that a job interview is your chance, finally, to tell your version of events.
Just take care to be authentic — and not vindictive or resentful — in your explanation. Acknowledge your mistakes in ways that don’t sound canned. Talk about what you learned from those mistakes and emphasize where you have grown as a leader. Avoid passive language — "mistakes were made" — that sounds like someone else was in charge.
The search committee will hear a variety of opinions from people at your home campus. Own your decisions and your narrative, because those experiences have made you a better leader.
Step No. 2: Understand the search process. Once you have thought carefully about your next move, it is time make yourself known to those running the search(es). A lot has been written in The Chronicle and elsewhere about the relationship between the search consultant and the applicant. In going through my most-recent search, I knew I needed to be completely honest and forthcoming in my interactions with consultants.
The consultant is your link to the search committee. You need someone who can give you an honest assessment of where the committee is, from the start of the search process through the finish. You also need someone who is going to put you into a search, not just to build the pool, but because you are a good potential fit for the job and the college. Pool builders are vampires of time and confidence, especially for applicants who are trying to maintain a career after a trying situation.
Don’t look to consultants for a friend, a coach, or a mentor. Handled deftly, though, they can be your lifeline to the next job. Ethical search consultants can’t read the collective mind of the search committee, but they should be able to: (a) tell you whether the college and the board are a good fit for your skill set and history, and (b) offer insights into the internal dynamics and what committee members are looking for in a new leader.
Such conversations should happen up front and be repeated throughout the process. The consultant should be frank with you, particularly if your candidacy is about to become public, about whether the trustees and the search-committee members have discussed possible criticism of your hiring or questions about your past that may arise. If they seem at all skittish, it may be best to withdraw your name before it goes public.
Step No. 3: Do a threat assessment. This step appears easy on its face. It isn’t. You are hyperaware of obvious loud voices who have opposed or criticized you on your current campus. They are not the only ones you should be concerned about.
It’s the stealth critics that pose a real threat. Generally, they are people who have a long history at your current institution and who may not be immediately on your radar. They have strong opinions about you, though, and will likely reach out to their counterparts at the college where you are interviewing.
You can’t stop that from happening. But you can have advocates ready who can affirm your character and work. Talk to key professors and staff members whom you know and trust at your current (or most recent) college. Ask them to serve as references who can be contacted directly by the search committee. Let them help you develop a more accurate and complete picture of your record.
Don’t be averse to asking trusted colleagues to reach out to their counterparts at the place where you are interviewing. That kind of peer-to-peer communication can alleviate the hiring institution’s concerns because it isn’t from you.
Step No. 4: Be prepared for awkward interview questions. You are in the running for a new position. Your cover letter and résumé got your foot in the door. Now is the time to prepare for the Skype or airport interview. Practice with someone you trust. Discuss your current situation and the difficult questions that may arise during the interview. It’s not easy or pleasant, but it’s fundamental to moving forward.
A former president, and friend, whose career was tainted by a no-confidence vote has, so far, been unable to move past first-round interviews, in part because of his own inability to discuss the situation dispassionately. This is a person with a set of terrific credentials, a wonderful understanding of the nuances of higher education, and a deep and broad pool of local support at his former college. The sting of the no-confidence vote, however, was deep. In interviews, my friend came across as defensive — and he knew it but couldn’t find a way to overcome it.
Once your interview date arrives, go with resolve. Look directly at committee members (or the camera). Speak with confidence. Convey your experience and what you have learned about yourself and being a leader. Use questions to re-emphasize your resilience and positive results.
The interviewers who ask you about the controversy will think they’ve just thrown you a fastball. But treat it like a softball. Tell your side of the story if it has been untold, but remember: Avoid assigning blame or naming names. Turn the question inside out. Make it about the college you want to work for, about what you can offer there, and about how your experience connects with the college’s needs.
Should you find yourself in a public forum — as is the practice across higher education — be prepared for the Q&A session. The folks in human resources and on the search committee will do their best to make sure the questions you are asked are fair, legal, and appropriate. But it’s best to be prepared for anything.
I’ve collected many stories over the years of colleagues who were subjected to hostile or inappropriate questions, or were simply subjected to the questioner giving an opinion rather than asking a question. As an added bonus, most campuses video-stream forums for the world to see. Consider this one more test of how you handle pressure — and be ready for it.
Step No. 5: Start fresh. If you reach this point, you did it. Leave your former college in the best condition possible, given the circumstances. Emerge from the situation knowing that your next position is an opportunity to begin anew.
You are hauntingly aware of the good and bad that has taken place in your work leading up to this new job. But the fact is: Your new colleagues only have a scintilla of that saga. They aren’t going to think about it unless you bring it up.
This understanding was really driven home once I was in my new position. I was lamenting about my previous job to a member of the search committee, who replied, "I wanted you here because of — not in spite of — your experience."
I hope that down the line you find yourself having a similar conversation with your new colleagues. Because, despite the personal costs of handling a major controversy on your campus, great value can emerge from even the most difficult situation.
Cary Aaron Reed is the pseudonym of a college president in the Midwest.