Lafayette College was looking for a president. Shelly Weiss Storbeck, on the college’s behalf, called Alison R. Byerly, a former provost at Middlebury College and visiting scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“She knew I would be attracted to a school thinking ambitiously about its future,” Byerly recalled.
Storbeck followed up with a pdf and hard copy of a glossy publication about the liberal arts college in Easton, Pa., so full of information it resembled an annual report and designed specifically for presidential candidates.
Thus began the courting and matchmaking that Storbeck has made her business as managing partner of Storbeck/Pimentel & Associates, an executive search firm in Media.
Almost all the nation’s prestigious universities and many others are turning to search firms like Storbeck’s to help find presidents, provosts, deans, and other top academics as the jobs become more difficult. It’s big business, one that depends on trust, credibility, sound judgment, and discretion so that the identity of candidates often employed elsewhere doesn’t get out.
The stakes are high: Colleges are looking for a president who will craft and carry out their vision for the next decade. Consultants must gauge a candidate’s ability to lead and interact with trustees, faculty, alumni, and students.
When a college begins a search, it often starts with an exhaustive selection process to find a firm that includes reviewing lengthy proposals and pitches from a growing number of companies.
“About the only thing we don’t use search firms for is football coaches,” said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education. “The stakes are so high that institutions think this gives them the best chance of getting a good fit.”
Two of every three presidential searches are aided by firms, said Jamie Ferrare, managing principal of a search firm that is a subsidiary of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. That has grown considerably over the last decade with the increase in retirements and turnover in the post, he said. It used to be one of every three.
The firms help colleges decide what they want in a leader and then attract a wide and diverse pool of candidates, reaching out to people who are happy in their current jobs and would not otherwise consider leaving – perhaps the most coveted finds.
“They know who the rising stars are better than we do,” said Edward W. Ahart, a lawyer who chairs Lafayette’s board of trustees.
Through interviews, references, background checks, and public record and Internet searches, the firms help colleges vet candidates. Some employ psychologists and use tests to gauge whether a candidate has the needed skills.
On average, the firms charge a third of the new candidate’s starting salary.
Not everyone is happy to see the trend.
“Search firms have too much investment in the status quo, all of this at a time when higher education desperately needs innovative thinking,” said Michael Poliakoff, vice president of policy for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. He said many firms are staffed by former college presidents and administrators.
Princeton recently completed a presidential search without a firm.
“We did not believe we needed outside help to get the word out, conduct sourcing interviews, develop a robust pool of excellent candidates, or conduct the interview and selection process,” spokesman Martin Mbugua said.
In April, Princeton elevated its provost, Christopher L. Eisgruber, to president.
But many others are using or have used firms.
Pennsylvania State University hired Isaacson, Miller, which has been in the business for 30 years and draws from a database of 285,000 people in higher education, health care, and other areas. The school expects to appoint a new president this fall.
Drexel turned to Witt/Kieffer, whose search led to the hiring of John A. Fry, formerly president of Franklin and Marshall College.
“I had never obviously run a presidential search. I really needed their help, advice and counsel,” said Richard A. Greenawalt, board of trustees chair.
Drexel wanted an experienced firm that would commit the full attention of the staff assigned to the search, he said.
Despite search firms’ efforts, candidates do not always thrive.
“The primary reason,” Storbeck said, “is a lack of careful referencing.”
Swarthmore, Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Muhlenberg Colleges also have used Storbeck/Pimentel. Storbeck, a former Haverford College administrator in the search business 25 years, said that she does not seek to find jobs for candidates she has already placed, but that doing so is sometimes unavoidable. She recruited Daniel H. Weiss, then dean of arts and sciences at Johns Hopkins, to become president of Lafayette in 2005.
When Haverford hired her in 2011, it expressed interest in Weiss. Storbeck said the committee would have to contact him on its own because she had placed him. Haverford hired Weiss, who took the presidency July 1.
Lafayette bore no ill will and hired Storbeck again to replace Weiss. She helped Lafayette pore over more than 100 candidates, said Ahart, the board chair.
She had watched Byerly’s career and was impressed with her vision and energy. She introduced Byerly to Ahart and then most of Byerly’s contact was with the committee.
Byerly said she liked the involvement of a firm. The candidate and college can ask the consultant hard questions about the other without appearing critical. In this case, both apparently liked the answers they got. Byerly became Lafayette’s 17th president—and the first woman to hold the job—on July 1.