A bill introduced in the Illinois State Senate by State Rep. Chapin Rose would ban public universities from using search firms and external search consultants to fill senior administrative positions. Although the stated goal of the legislation is to curtail the high costs of external search consultants, underlying the legislation is the university’s unfortunate experience with Michael J. Hogan, who resigned from his presidency after only two years. The search for Mr. Hogan mirrored the practice at most universities; it entailed a 19 member search committee and the use of an outside search firm.
In October 2009 I wrote a piece in this blog critical of the presidential search process at the University of Illinois (http://www.savingalmamater.com/2009/10/u-of-illinois-presidential-search-off.html). Today, the dismal but increasingly common outcome of that search should serve as further evidence that procedures for hiring senior administrators in higher education are deeply flawed. At a time when tuition is unaffordable and university budgets are being decimated, it is inexcusable that the appointment, say, of a dean can take up to a year, cost a hundred thousand dollars, and involve hundreds of hours of committee time.
However, it is an oversimplification to blame search firms for the failures. True, the worst firms (which include some of the largest, in my opinion) trade mostly in gossip about who is “on the market,” collecting exorbitant fees without probing deeply to evaluate candidate credentials, looking for troublesome personality traits, and assessing the “fit” of candidates to the institution. But I have also seen search consultants who are insightful, think carefully about the institution and its needs, and are excellent judges of character and ability.
The biggest problem, in my opinion, is the search process itself. Huge clumsy search committees, chosen primarily to satisfy constituency demands for inclusiveness are endemic in higher education. Representatives from the faculty senate, alumni organizations, local politicians, the student body, classified civil service staff, senior and junior professors, humanists and scientists, all carefully balanced to reflect racial and gender parity may send a reassuring message about participatory democracy but are seldom qualified properly to evaluate candidates. Lacking sophistication about the nature of the position (presidential search committees typically have members who may never even have met a university president) and having little in common with each other, such groups often overemphasize qualities of demeanor, physical appearance, the ability to remember names, and other superficial candidate traits. Questions often probe generic, issues (Does the candidate support diversity? Shared governance” Believe in consensus-building? Have an open door policy for students? Respect faculty values?), which are easily rehearsed by candidates.In this context, the best search firms can provide enormously valuable advice, cutting through the clutter, zeroing in on the skills which are truly germane to the position, and inquiring deeply about past performance. While I agree that the use of search firms may have gotten out hand at some institutions, the “fix” is to reform the deeply flawed search process itself rather than forcing campuses to go it alone.