By Richard Badenhausen
Anyone who has served on a search committee for a vice president or provost knows that senior-level hiring — while crucial to campus success — is extremely difficult and often poorly done. With a new hiring season upon us, complicated by the disruptions of Covid-19, now is a good moment to consider why it’s so hard, and what can be done to avoid the many land mines.
I’ve been involved in these searches for almost 30 years. My goal here is to help hiring committees increase their success rate as they head into this fraught process. I hope I can also help leadership candidates understand that setbacks typically have less to do with the applicants and more to do with the committee makeup and campus idiosyncrasies — a case of “it’s not you, it’s us.”
So why is it such a formidable assignment to hire a vice president or provost?
Because too many cooks can spoil the soup. Unlike faculty hires handled within a single department, searches for top administrators pull representatives from a panoply of campus constituencies. The diverse composition leads to conflicting assumptions and desires (some of them unstated). Professors are looking for a collaborative and open leader; students want someone centered on them; trustees hope for an administrator who can create efficiencies; deans want a good strategist; and staff members desire a leader who will acknowledge their crucial work.
If the institution is particularly siloed, committee members will need time to understand both the competing wishes and the demands of the job in question (lots of people on campus are blissfully unfamiliar with what senior administrators actually do). To get everyone to row in the same direction, the search chair must lay out the disparities openly at the start and speak to them as strengths.
Because reading stacks of documents well is difficult. Reading cover letters and résumés is a proficiency that improves from experience. Uncovering the story told by the candidate’s materials, extrapolating which demonstrable skills are transferable to a new setting, and distinguishing between red flags and mere anomalies are close-reading competencies that develop over time.
Committees sometimes forget that the application cull is simply a starting point, not the time to get overly picky. Academics are trained to move through the world guided by critique — that helps us strengthen arguments, improve science, and uncover injustice — but it’s not necessarily the best approach to hiring, particularly early on.
Faced with a stack of 100 résumés, human nature tends to look for excuses to eliminate paper from the pile. Instead, the committee should focus at this stage on each candidate’s assets: “Given what we know from this candidate’s materials, do we want to learn more about the person’s qualifications for the position?” A shrewd chair can guide the conversations toward the goal of a diverse pool of semifinalists.
Because people have short memories and overvalue more-recent experiences. Psychologists call this “recency bias,” and the deliberations of search committees are inevitably colored by their experiences (positive or negative) with the most recent occupant of the position. Having grown tired of the glad-handing fund raiser who just stepped down, the committee may favor a more cerebral candidate with an impeccable academic pedigree. But is that really what the campus needs now? In such cases, it’s helpful to think less about recent history, and more about an institution’s current strategic and managerial needs.
Because old anxieties and conflicts tend to resurface with any major hire. Arguments about institutional identity, disputes about direction, and dissatisfaction with past or current leaders are reawakened or exacerbated during a leadership search, forcing the hiring committee to deal with conflicts that may have been lingering below the surface. Pessimists will worry that this hire won’t solve those problems, while optimists will hold out hope that a new leader can help. It’s crucial for the committee to sort out how it plans to frame institutional disputes before connecting with candidates, instead of litigating them in the open during interviews.
Because committees forget they are not just buyers in the job market. Your institution is not the only one shopping around. It’s incumbent on the search committee to put the institution’s best foot forward — in authentic, not cloying, ways. While candidates are most focused on whether they see an upside to the job opportunity, they are also trying to decide, “Do I want to spend the majority of my day with these people over the next five years?” — a question that has become even more difficult to answer now that searches are being conducted remotely.
The need to sell (the position and the institution) is one of many good reasons to place a student leader on the committee. Students can articulate the power of the learning environment most genuinely, and their participation in the search demonstrates your claim to being a student-centered institution. It shows alignment between values and practices.
Because human beings are biased. While hiring well is an art, science shows it is also an activity filled with error and bias. Implicit biases of all kinds are difficult to eradicate, and can emerge strongly during a search because hiring is a stressful process. As Jennifer L. Eberhardt, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, reminds us, “Bias is most likely to have an impact on our thinking in high-stress situations.” In leadership searches, people invite a stranger into their midst, someone who will hold significant power and who may ask the institution to operate in new ways.
The work of the committee should be centered on inclusive practices that seek to reduce the effect of bias: For example, evaluation rubrics that identify skills tied to a position announcement will make it harder for subjective assessments to seep into the process. Anthony Greenwald, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, emphasized that point recently while discussing his research on bias: When “decisions are made based on predetermined, objective criteria that are rigorously applied,” he said, “they are much less likely to produce disparities.”
According to a freshly published study, “The Facade of Fit in Faculty Search Processes,” committee chairs should be especially wary when that squishy term comes up in discussions. “Fit” often surfaces as a way of eliding diversity, and casting out strong leaders who might cause discomfort, when that quality might be exactly what is needed.
Because working with search firms is tricky. Consultants can be enormously helpful, but they vary in quality, have their own agendas, and need time to understand campus culture.
On the plus side, the best consultants see this work as part of a long-term relationship and so will have the institution’s interests at heart. They tend to be good listeners and acute observers of group dynamics. They have a strong sense of job-market trends and can tease out key insights from references. Rather than giving lip service to diversity, talented consultants will work hard to diversify the pool. They will be courageous enough to nudge the committee when it needs to be pushed — like when a committee reaches an impasse upon uncovering the warts of their finalists. And good consultants are adept at warning a committee not to fall in love with professional applicants — who shine in interview settings as they hop from job to job every three years — but may not be a good match for the institution. It’s important for the committee chair to be a collaborative partner with the consultant yet strong enough to hold firm when necessary.
Because no one is perfect. Recently in senior-level hiring, we’ve seen the phenomenon of the 20-page “opportunity statement” — an interminable list of required and preferred qualities the search committee is looking for in the hire — that sets impossible expectations. Committee members will often feel a crushing weight to get a senior hire just right, so as not to let down the campus, a situation that only fuels the search for perfection. These administrative jobs, though, have become increasingly complex, which is why the average tenure of provosts, for example, continues to plummet.
As one recently retired colleague at a public university remarked: Of that institution’s 20 provosts in the past 50 years, only three had won “good marks” from the faculty — a .150 batting average. It seems that hiring a successful provost is even harder than hitting a major-league fastball.
In short, search committees expecting to find the “perfect” candidate for a key leadership post will be disappointed. They can still aim for perfection, but they should be delighted to “settle” for the very good.
Richard Badenhausen is dean of the Honors College at Westminster College in Salt Lake City and immediate past president of the National Collegiate Honors Council.