Friday, April 17, 2015

They are not worth the search? I always get my man!

Two college campuses. One where I work. Another in the town where I live.  And both announced the hiring of new presidents in the last couple of days.

Over the years, universities have adopted a formula for hiring presidents.  A university typically assembles a "search committee"for which, sometimes, there could even be an advisory committee.  Usually people who think they are kingmakers or those who have nothing better to do sign up for these activities.  (As you can imagine, I have never bothered with these!)  And then there is that other piece in the formula: a search firm. Headhunters.

This is the formula that both the campuses put into place.  So, will the presidents be the transformative messiahs that the campuses were waiting for?
there is no evidence that the use of a search firm improves the quality or longevity of administrative leaders compared with those chosen the old-fashioned way, by an internal committee, the board of trustees, or the appointing officer based on crony politics. The same lack of evidence applies to the promotion of inside candidates.
There is no evidence.  Yet, search firms are very much integral to this formula.  To ask "why?" means that we have not understood higher education.  Pretty much nothing we do anymore in higher education is driven by evidence.  Do we have evidence that student learning improves with gazillion dollar gyms?  Are student graduation rates better because of the fancy foods in the cafeterias?  Who cares for evidence!
Underlying the perceived necessity for a search firm is the notion that each college is unique, a highly dubious proposition.
Go on, am listening.
Several years ago I perused ads in The Chronicle to develop a brief list of commonly cited characteristics desired of candidates for almost any job. Here they are: the ability to articulate a vision, a collaborative working style, capacity to lead and inspire diverse groups, a commitment to excellence, superb communication skills, distinguished scholarly and professional achievement, well-developed interpersonal skills, an ability to work effectively with a wide range of constituents, and a commitment to diversity.
Given the huge number of applications that many ads attract, it is comforting to know the easy availability of people with a commitment to excellence and an abundance of natural charm.
I tell ya, it is the Lake Wobegon thing all over again, where all our college presidents have "the ability to articulate a vision, a collaborative working style, capacity to lead and inspire diverse groups, a commitment to excellence, superb communication skills, distinguished scholarly and professional achievement, well-developed interpersonal skills, an ability to work effectively with a wide range of constituents, and a commitment to diversity."
So, you see, it should be sufficient for an ad to read simply, "Wanted: President," with the name of the institution. Applicants could be evaluated according to the knowledge revealed about the institution and the noting of relevant personal qualifications. Colleges have sufficient talent, academic and otherwise, to carry out the functions of a reasonable search with adherence to public-policy requirements, without the time and expense of search-firm mythologies.
But, of course, that is not how we will ever do it.

And then, almost always, even before the proverbial honeymoon phase is over, even those who participated in the search committee and advisory committee start muttering about the new president.  Then, as Robert Browning put it, "And the muttering grew to a grumbling; And the grumbling grew to a mighty rumbling."  It is a rare university president who is loved and respected more than otherwise.
While many of my personal experiences were painful, over all my sardonic mode prevailed, buttressed by my love for a line from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice: "you shall seek all day ere you find them, and when you have them, they are not worth the search."
I suppose it is a good thing that most people in the academic world and in the search firms don't read Shakespeare anymore ;)


2 comments:

Ramesh said...

I am a little lost as to why search firms have got your goat. I don't know the academic arena, but in business, search firms are used all the time, especially for senior roles such as a President.

I presume you would be open for a global candidate from anywhere. How would you know where to look for an Indian or a Chinese ? Secondly people of seniority will never apply to an ad. Sometimes they may not even be thinking of a switch and will have to be "sold" the job. This is what search firms do well. While a potential candidate is being "wooed" franker conversations to see if there is a fit can be had better with a search firm than the hiring organisation itself.

Search firms maintain virtually a dossier of senior people with experience and have contact with them spread over a number of years. When you need a senior person, they will usually come up with a list of people, most of whom you wouldn't have thought of and who certainly will not respond to an ad.

If I were to apply for the post of a CEO of a company, there is no way I'll do the first conversation with the company itself - an intermediary will be the first contact. It may be a search firm or an individual known to both parties .

This is all pertaining to the business world, which is the only one I know. Maybe academia is completely different.

Sriram Khé said...

Yep, academia is different. In so many ways. For starters, keep in mind that we "workers" have tenure and no CEO can come in a make any dramatic changes. The presidency is rarely about big changes over short time, and is about incremental changes instead. The president is not a powerful officer. Which means that right from day one, the president has to have as many workers buying into his/her plans--else, everything is doomed. Recall how Larry Summers was driven out his presidential quarters at Harvard?
Bringing search firms into this is, yes, a copying of the corporate business model. But, this is one of those bizarre copying that makes no sense at all.

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