Trustees | Trusteeship

Rethinking the Presidential Search

Why some colleges skip hiring consultants and a national search
CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION   |  September 24, 2017 by Eric Kelderman

Earlier this year, Raymond J. Rice was chosen to be president of the University of Maine at Presque Isle. No search firm was used to recruit him for the position, vet his credentials, and determine if he was a good fit for the job. No search committee picked his résumé from a broad and diverse pool of finalists. In fact, he had not even applied for the job.

Mr. Rice’s appointment wasn’t another example of a search process run amok. He had just spent a year as the interim president and had worked at the university for some 20 years, climbing through the ranks from professor to provost. He was offered the job after the chancellor of the state’s university system took the unusual step of asking faculty, students, and the institution’s governing board whether they wanted to complete a full-blown executive search, use a more expedited process, or appoint their interim president.

The groups endorsed Mr. Rice as their next leader. A letter from the university’s Faculty Assembly gave him an “enthusiastic and unqualified endorsement.” The Student Government Association said the former provost would not use his leadership as a steppingstone to another job and “sees us as all that we are and all that we could be.”

The process of Mr. Rice’s appointment is far from the norm in higher education, which has become enamored of picking outsiders as leaders; someone who can bring fresh, new ideas to the institution; someone who can only be found through an exhaustive national search.

While the data on search firms is limited, there is some evidence that about 70 percent of presidential searches at public colleges use outside consultants. Anecdotally, it’s difficult to find any colleges that are not using search firms, though one consultant reports that institutions are beginning to limit what they expect from those companies.

There are plenty of reasons why the University of Maine’s approach might not work elsewhere given the size and type of institution. But it is one example, among a handful of efforts, to rethink the standard playbook for finding a new leader: hire consultants and conduct a national search.

In order to find a leader who is right for each situation, the system has to be flexible and not automatically turn to a search firm or a national search, said James H. Page, chancellor of the University of Maine system.

“We have a good process and an approach across the board that says, Let’s look at the particulars of where we’re at and where we need to be going,” he said.

What has become the norm in higher education is to rely on a well-connected group of experts who tap their network of promising professionals. The goal of a search firm is to find the perfect fit for the institution, ideally someone they’ve recruited, based on criteria and a job description often developed or crafted by the firm.

That process is now taking place at, for example, Cleveland State University, which has hired the firm Wheless Partners, from Alabama. The university’s board of trustees has appointed a 22-member committee to oversee the search, but the search firm will play a big role in determining how the position is framed for candidates and will encourage a number of people to apply.

The firm will use input from public forums, one-on-one interviews, and conversations with faculty, staff, and students to assist in drafting the job description, said William Dube, a spokesman for the university. That job description will then be reviewed and approved by the search committee, Mr. Dube said in an email.

That process can pay dividends. But in recent years questions have been raised about the costs and quality of outsourcing searches and whether it can undermine shared governance at the expense of secrecy.

Such searches have also been criticized for not identifying enough women and underrepresented minority candidates for the top job.

A 2016 study of 61 contracts between public colleges and search firms found the average cost was $79,000, with a high of $160,000. Nearly half of the agreements tacked on indirect expenses or “administrative fees” of $2,000 to $30,000.

Many of the contracts were written by the search firms themselves, according to the research by James H. Finkelstein, a professor of public policy at George Mason University and Judith A. Wilde, a higher-education expert with Beta Group Consulting.

Several prominent searches have also produced some questionable results in recent years, often because the firm has failed to uncover questionable behavior. In some cases, board members have subverted the process in order to ensure that their favored candidate is hired.

The University of Maine’s decision to skip the usual search process wasn’t about misbehavior or poor leadership but a much more common issue in higher education: presidents who don’t stick around.

Linda K. Schott became president at the Presque Isle campus in 2012 after a national search and with the help of search consultants.

Four years later, Ms. Schott was on the move again, this time winning a job as president at Southern Oregon University.

At the time, the university was still in the midst of making major changes to its academic programs — a plan that Ms. Schott had led the development of — and the news of her departure was a surprise, said Carl Michaud, chairman of the local Board of Visitors, an advisory board to the university. Ms. Schott announced her new position only three weeks before she left, he said, and long before the job of overhauling the programs was finished.

Mr. Rice, the provost who had begun his career teaching English composition two decades earlier, was appointed interim president. The chancellor then began meeting with campus groups, such as the Board of Visitors, Faculty Assembly, and student government.

Because the academic overhaul had already begun, Mr. Page wanted to find out if people on campus felt like they were headed in the right direction. “I told them I was there to listen,” he said, asking the various groups, “are you on the right path, in the biggest sense?”

That’s when Mr. Page took the unusual approach of suggesting a third option to the usual full or expedited search: a direct appointment of the interim president. But the final option would not happen “unless there was strong consensus that what we had in the current leadership was exactly where we wanted to go,” he said.

The result was that most on campus felt like they were ready to stick with their current direction and leadership, Mr. Page said. In order to cement that consensus, the chancellor asked each group to endorse Mr. Rice with a letter. After that the system’s Board of Trustees still had to affirm its choice.

Carolyn Dorsey, an associate professor of business management and the chair of the Faculty Assembly, said Mr. Rice thrived as interim president. “He almost instantly united us around one effort to move forward in a more organized fashion,” she said. “You could feel the difference in the air.”

And faculty members appreciated the chancellor’s process of engaging them and others in a discussion about the future, she said. “He said he would not entertain the executive option if it didn’t come from us,” Ms. Dorsey said. “What we offered was our agreement for the process.”

The leadership change happened even more abruptly at the University of Maine at Augusta, when the former president stepped down in April, less than two years after he was appointed through a national search. In order to replace him, the chancellor also met with campus groups with the explicit intent of choosing someone within the state who could serve for a fixed term and bring some stability to the university.

In this case, the chancellor worked confidentially with campus leaders and the Board of Visitors to gather a group of names that could be considered for a longer term than the typical interim president, Mr. Page said. “It’s not a model I would use in most cases,” he said.

Jan Mokros, chairwoman of the Augusta campus’s Board of Visitors, said, “This time, because we had had a few presidents in the last few years, the chancellor said, Let’s do it differently.”

The name of Rebecca Wyke emerged from those discussions, and the system’s board appointed her in June to a three-year term. Ms. Wyke had been serving as the system’s vice chancellor for finance and administration.

Ms. Wyke was a “known quantity” and, perhaps most importantly, “she really understood the state and the politics,” Ms. Mokros said.

In both of the recent openings within the University of Maine system, the individual needs and circumstances of the campuses dictated the process for finding a new president. “I’m not anti-consultant, but we’ve had occasions where we got results without using them,” said Mr. Page.

Plenty of people do think colleges have come to rely too heavily on professional search firms. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni is one group that has long taken a skeptical view of the typical process. In a report, “Selecting a New President,” the group says a question for governing boards is not what kind of firm to hire, but if they should even hire one.

“Overreliance on firms lulls firms into a sense of complacency on their single biggest responsibility,” said Michael B. Poliakoff, the council’s president.

A key problem with search firms, he said, is that they recycle the same safe group of candidates, usually sitting presidents, for each search, rather than considering who will actually be the best person to lead the institution forward.

Although conducting a presidential search without a firm is still unusual, some colleges are limiting the involvement of the consultants, said Roderick J. McDavis, with AGB Search. “The biggest area where people want our help is on referencing and background checks,” he said.

Joshua Wyner, executive director of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute, still thinks that professional search firms can be an important part of the process because of their expertise and their ability to understand the institution’s needs within a national context. They may also have much more time than trustees to spend on a search, he said.

A May report from the institute also lays out several areas where colleges can improve the process of identifying and developing new leaders from both within and outside academe. In addition to more engagement by governing boards, the report recommends more actions to diversify the talent pool for future searches and to improve professional-development and peer-learning opportunities for new presidents.

Governing boards often enter the process without adequate information about what they need in a new president, Mr. Wyner said, and when a leader leaves they are not in a great position to know what a successor needs. And that situation is not helped if they just hand the reins of the search over to a firm.

The board has to be more involved in the process long before the president leaves and stay engaged both during and after the search, said Mr. Wyner. And that includes better communication with groups of faculty, staff, and students, he said.

“We’re arguing for greater understanding by the board of where it is,” he said, “not just in fiscal standing, but in the larger view of the higher-education landscape.”


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