Trustees | Trusteeship

Why Have Trustees Ceded Their Most Important Job to Search Firms?


To the Editor:

Milton Greenberg’s essay “You Don’t Need a Search Firm to Hire a President” (The Chronicle, September 1) is timely, refreshing, and encouraging. Only a respected and retired senior leader in higher education could have written candidly about the role of executive-search firms in presidential and other searches. I hope that other senior colleagues will follow his lead.

We are overdue for a serious examination of the reasons why executive-search firms have attained almost a monopoly on presidential searches—and of the consequences of this state of affairs.

Certainly we should ask why searches cost so much, why presidential candidates are predictably recycled, why briefs and job descriptions seldom match the rich diversity of institutions and missions in American higher education. More importantly, we need to ask why, instead of following false prophets who promise “God on a good day,” governing boards and campus leaders are not turning their attention to strategies and succession plans for their institutions that they are uniquely positioned to develop.

I do not share Mr. Greenberg’s nostalgia for simpler days when campus constituencies were more directly involved in the search process. There are times when a savvy external consultant can make sense of and reconcile conflicting views or priorities. Neither do I share his view that in the highly stratified world of higher education it is easy to identify the relatively few leaders appropriate for each stratum.

The deeper issue we need to examine is why over the past 30 years college and university trustees de facto have delegated to search firms their most important responsibility, the choice of women and men who will lead and manage their institutions. The recently released report “Governance for a New Era”—produced under the leadership of the City University of New York’s board chairman, Benno C. Schmidt, with input from 21 presidents, trustees, and policymakers—raises this very issue.

Yes, at the end of the search game the trustees vote to anoint a candidate. But they do so in the context of ground rules set by the search firm and of alarming background noise: “We can deliver God on a good day. But talent is scarce. Act on the candidate we know and recommend, and be ready to beat the competition in terms of salary and perks. If you don’t, God will go elsewhere.”

It is time for college and university trustees to heed calls to rethink where and how they find their CEOs.


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