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Leaving Firm Footing

Leaving Firm Footing
June 23, 2011

Academic Search, one of the most prominent higher education search firms, responsible for placing more than 400 senior executives at various universities since 2004, is facing a major exodus by some of its most prominent consultants.

At least 10 of Academic Search’s 32 consultants, including the firm’s president, Paul H. L. Chou, who has been in place less than a year, are reportedly either pursuing opportunities outside the firm or are simply leaving when their contracts expire on June 30 or once they wrap up current searches. Three of these consultants – Thomas B. Courtice, Julie E. Tea, and Bruce T. Alton – are heading to rival AGB Search.

A consultant at Academic Search who requested not to be named said the departures are the result of philosophical disagreements about the direction and management of the firm that have grown out of a decision a few years ago to restructure Academic Search, which was a nonprofit organization, into a for-profit subsidiary of a nonprofit organization, the American Academic Leadership Institute.

The number of departures and the fact that they are all happening at once could be a major blow to Academic Search’s standing in the market and may open the door to competitors. AGB Search, a new player, could be well-positioned with some of its new hires.

Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges and interim chair of Academic Search's board, said he could not comment on the turnover, saying, "Resignations and appointments are personnel matters that must be treated confidentially." He also noted that he has only been in his current position for a few weeks.

On Tuesday, the firm hired Dale Nitzschke, former president of Southeastern Missouri State University, Marshall University, and the University of New Hampshire, to serve as interim president. Ekmain said Nitzschke is "sorting through résumés of some very impressive people who wish to be full-time or part-time search consultants at Academic Search."

Academic Search is known for hiring former college presidents, who work remotely with a central support staff. Academic Search emphasizes its sole focus on higher education. This is in contrast to other search firms, many of which have practices in areas other than higher education and employ people who have made their careers in the search industry. But since the governance change, consultants at Academic Search said there was a concern that the firm would be pushed in a direction more like other firms in the market.

The other main concern, consultants said, was the way the firm was being managed. The American Academic Leadership Institute, the nonprofit organization that oversees Academic Search, derives revenue from the company. The institute's board has also been heavily involved in management decisions, said Academic Search employees who are critical of that influence.

The consultants said that when Chou was picked to be the firm's president, they received assurances that the culture would continue as it had been. But when Chou announced a few weeks ago that he would be pursuing a different opportunity and some members of the AALI and Academic Search boards decided to leave those positions, and the consultants had not seen any change, many decided it was time to leave. Chou said he "was approached for a new opportunity that really aligns very well with my values, experience and aspirations."

A search consultant who does not work at Academic Search but who has watched the outfit over the years said he was not surprised to see the departures.

He said that he had heard of "deep division among the people of the firm about strategy," especially the structural change. He also said that the search industry has professionalized in recent years, with more competition from people who have spent their careers in the search business. He said Academic Search is "a halfway house for retired presidents," many of them working part-time, and that this approach is no longer as attractive to colleges as it once was.

Academic Search's approach was more successful when searches "were more informal," he said. While critical of the company, he said that it had "formidable" search consultants (some of whom are apparently those leaving).

AGB Search, established in April 2010 and headed by Jamie Ferrare, a former senior consultant for Academic Search, is picking up three of the departing consultants.

Ferrare said he had worked closely with Tea, Courtice, and Alton, who originally hired him at Academic Search, when he was at that organization. When he left for AGB Search, they inquired about continuing to work with him at the new firm. A few months ago, Ferrare said, AGB Search had grown to a size where it could take on the three.

Ferrare said none of the three mentioned any problems with Academic Search when they approached him. "We worked together a lot and I think they're interested in getting back into that groove," he said. "They want to come in on the front end of something they can help build."

 

 

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