Search Firm Contracts Aren't What Some Think, Researchers Find

Using a search firm to recruit a new president or provost can cost public colleges and universities the better part of $100,000 -- or more.

Research being presented Friday estimates fees called for under executive search firm contracts with public colleges and universities for the 2015-16 academic year averaged $78,769. Fees varied from a low of $25,000 to a high of $160,000. The estimate is before indirect or administrative fees. Factor in several other fees, and the average search firm contract was estimated as being worth $87,186.

That higher figure still does not quantify other hard-to-estimate costs like reimbursements, bonuses and faculty time, according to James Finkelstein, a public policy professor at George Mason University who is presenting the research on search firm contracts at the American Association of University Professors’ annual conference under the title of “Executive Search Firms and the Disempowerment of Faculty.” Finkelstein’s research used job postings seeking higher education leaders for the 2015-16 academic year, finding 82 out of 106 hunts for leaders used a search firm. Ultimately, researchers received 61 contracts to evaluate through public information requests.

Executive search firms are being used more frequently by universities, according to Finkelstein. But he thinks his research has implications beyond the number of searches or the dollar amounts involved. Outside search firms can directly affect which candidates are being recruited, whether candidates’ needs are being met and how the search process plays out. Finkelstein thinks they are an important topic under university governance.

“Is the use of a search firm, in particular in hiring a president, essentially a governing board outsourcing one of their most important responsibilities?” said Finkelstein, who on Thursday presented another batch of research examining the salaries and benefits public college and university presidents receive.

Under their contracts, search firms are not bound to provide all the services many might expect, Finkelstein said. Of the contracts reviewed, 51 percent included on-list reference check services and 46 percent included off-list reference checks. Some contracts included other due diligence services -- but many of those services came with an additional fee.

Degree checks were included in 23 percent of contracts but could be added for an additional fee in another 20 percent. Media checks were included in 20 percent of searches and could be added for a fee in 2 percent more. Credit reports were included in 12 percent of contracts and available for a fee in 20 percent, criminal record checks were included in 10 percent of contracts and available for a fee in 21 percent, and checks with departments of motor vehicles were included in 8 percent of contracts and available for an extra fee in 16 percent.

Total estimated fees -- including indirect or administrative fees but not other fees like travel reimbursements -- varied widely between two-year and four-year institutions. Fees averaged $53,536 at two-year institutions and $101,607 at four-year institutions. Differences weren’t as pronounced between presidential and provost searches, however. Lumping two-year and four-year institutions together, presidential searches came with fees estimated at an average of $88,194. Provost searches had an average estimate of $84,833.

Most contracts called for calculating fees based on a fixed-price model or a percentage model. The fixed-price model was used in 52 percent of searches, while a percentage of a leader’s base salary was used in calculations in 25 percent of searches. That percentage of base salary used to calculate fees varied from 30-33 percent -- and 22 percent of searches included bonuses in their calculations.

Finkelstein’s research also showed that a majority of contracts, 57 percent, were prepared by search firms, instead of the hiring colleges or universities.

There are backers and detractors of universities using executive search firms. Some have argued that spending on university searches is an investment that pays off, with the right university presidents able to boost donations and improve standings.

Former UVA Law Student Sues Department of Education

A recent University of Virginia law school graduate is suing the U.S. Department of Education, alleging that the department has illegally mandated that colleges abandon due process protections when adjudicating sexual assault cases. In particular, the lawsuit focuses on the department's directive that colleges use a low standard of proof called preponderance of evidence. The department's Office for Civil Rights instructed colleges to use this standard in a 2011 Dear Colleague letter.

Department officials maintain that the letter merely clarified existing regulations. Critics, however, say that the letters actually enacted sweeping regulatory changes without first going through the notice-and-comment procedures required by the Administrative Procedure Act.

The UVA lawsuit is sponsored by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. The former student was found responsible of sexual assault last year when the university used the preponderance of evidence standard to decide his case, in which he was accused of assaulting an intoxicated woman. He was able to graduate but must complete four months of counseling before he is allowed to work as an attorney, and he is banned from returning to campus. According to the lawsuit, the retired judge who decided the case noted that it was a "very close" and "very difficult" decision, and that her ruling was based on the OCR's requirement that she use "the weakest standard of proof." Until 2011, UVA used the higher standard known as "clear and convincing."

The former student's lawsuit joins two others recently filed against the department that also argue the department ignored APA requirements and sacrificed due process.

“Students have a right to pursue their education free from sexual harassment, or any type of harassment or discrimination,” Dorie Nolt, press secretary for the Department of Education, said in an email. “The Office for Civil Rights has worked tirelessly to defend that right, and our efforts have been validated repeatedly by the courts.”

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New Guidelines on Campus Sexual Violence

The American College Health Association on Thursday released new guidelines on how colleges should address sexual and relationship violence. The new guidelines recommend that colleges provide an anonymous reporting option for victims, ensure access to 24-hour crisis response and conduct climate surveys on a regular basis. "The intention of these guidelines is to promote trauma-informed policies and practices that will provide a comprehensive approach to addressing sexual assault and relationship violence on college and university campuses," the ACHA's Creating Guidance for Addressing Sexual Assault Task Force said in a statement.

The full list of guidelines can be found here.

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CUNY Reaches Tentative Deal With Faculty Union

After years of stalled negotiations, the City University of New York announced on Thursday a tentative contract deal with its faculty union, the Professional Staff Congress. The proposed contract includes 10 percent in compound salary increases over seven years, most of it retroactive. In addition to pay, the contract features a multiyear appointments for adjunct faulty members and a provision that would allow professors to devote more time to individual students.

Barbara Bowen, union president and a professor of English at Queens College and the CUNY Graduate Center, said in a statement that it was “able to negotiate a strong, imaginative contract in a period of enforced austerity for public workers because our members mobilized. The fight for our contract was a fight for investment in quality education at CUNY.”

James B. Milliken, CUNY chancellor, said in a separate statement that the agreement “provides not only a much-needed increase in pay for our many faculty and staff, but it also includes additional provisions important to CUNY’s competitiveness for talent at all levels.”

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Focusing on 'high-demand' fields is key to tuition assistance programs, Amazon says

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As more companies expand tuition assistance benefits, Amazon says its model -- which focuses on "high-demand" fields -- is the one they should follow.

U Washington Faculty Rejects Proposed Salary Reform

Faculty members at the University of Washington voted down a controversial plan to address salary compression, a common term for when junior faculty members make close to or more than what senior professors are paid due to changes in the market between points of hire. About 58 percent of eligible, full-time faculty members at Washington’s Seattle, Tacoma and Bothell campuses participated in the online vote; the tally was 1,328 for the plan and 1,356 against, with 58 abstentions. The initiative, which included a peer-approval mechanism for tiered and retention raises, needed a two-thirds majority of affirmative votes from those casting ballots to pass.

Gautham P. Reddy, a professor of radiology at Seattle and a member of the Washington Faculty Senate’s executive committee, said he agreed with the outcome. While faculty members in some schools and colleges would benefit from a new faculty salary policy, he said, “the proposal would not have worked well for some of our academic units, including the medical school, some of our other professional schools and our fast-growing campuses in Bothell and Tacoma.” The Senate is expected to continue working on salary compression issues next year.

Gail Stygall, a professor of English at the Seattle campus who supported the plan, said Washington knows salary compression is a serious concern, and that she hoped a feasible plan to address it would soon emerge. In the meantime, she said, “We’ll struggle onward.”

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UC Davis Chancellor Sent Aides to Switzerland

Linda P. B. Katehi, who was suspended as chancellor of the University of California, Davis, in April, spent more than $17,000 to send aides to Switzerland, Texas and Maryland to learn more about social media, The Sacramento Bee reported. The trips were part of an effort by Katehi to improve the university's image. The trip to Switzerland was prompted by a visit Katehi made there to Nestlé's Digital Acceleration Lab, which monitors all forms of media for the company. Katehi's spokesman said that the trip was part of an important effort to see if similar programs could work for Davis.

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Public university presidents seeing big gains in bonuses, other perks

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New study on compensation for leaders of state colleges and universities finds costs for bonuses and other expensive benefits are growing.

New presidents or provosts: Briar Cliff Butte Hazard Mobile St. John's Schreiner Seattle Southwest Baptist Xavier

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  • Charlene S. Aaron, assistant professor at Illinois State University’s Mennonite College of Nursing, has been selected as chancellor at St. John's College of Nursing, also in Illinois.
  • Jennifer Lindon, dean of occupational technologies/workforce solutions at Hazard Community and Technical College, in Kentucky, has been promoted to president there.

College leaders need to promote more of their own faculty members as administrators (essay)

College leaders should take steps to grow their own academic administrators from among the faculty members in their midst, writes Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt.

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