Hiring Outside Academe

Charles R. Middleton considers why he is increasingly appointing as senior administrators people who are coming from non-academic employers.

September 30, 2009

We face a looming crisis in higher education in sustaining the quality of our workforce. Much has been written about the retirement of the baby boomers, the comparatively small size and lower educational attainment of the generation next in the queue (the so called Gen Xers), and how those factors will affect faculty hiring.

The same issues pertain to the recruitment of senior leaders across the academy. The American Council on Education recently reported on the aging of the American college presidency, with half of incumbents now over 60. Similar results are visible for a slightly younger cohort of chief academic officers over the age of 55. Since three quarters of presidents have served in this role, one can see one group of seniors being replaced by another over the next decade. But who will replace the provosts?

Less study has been focused on other senior leadership positions. Areas outside of the academic leadership face similar challenges, as the demographic shifts are hardly limited to those with academic credentials. Look around your campus and too often you see that those in middle level positions of great responsibility such as the registrar or the heads of your counseling service or your student accounts area are sometimes much younger than the senior person in the division.

This is an omen worth paying attention to.

I recognize that it’s not a novel idea to value the notion of professional development and career advancement from within. I think a good case can be made for the view that, all things considered, promoting people who have done an excellent job in their current position and are known for their dedication to the campus is preferable to hiring from outside. At lower levels of responsibility, one can even take a chance and advance talented people who might not yet have the full set of requisite experiences but who come close, just because you have confidence that they can learn on the job and you need them now. If they have successfully made such transitions in the past, then in my experience they are likely to do so in the future.

In practical terms this usually means one of two things. First, if you have a mid-level position that requires five years experience in a job one level below, then you can take a chance on candidates with only four or even perhaps three if they have all the other skills and habits of mind that you are looking for. Who hasn’t had to appoint a director of admissions from among a group of not-quite-ready associates when the incumbent left to become a vice president at the end of the academic year?

Second, and especially if you are in a smaller institution with fewer people in every division than the larger universities typically employ, your best person to be director of financial aid might not be in that department but rather in your finance office, especially if you need leadership skills more than great technical knowledge.

The principle is simple: recruit/promote the most talented people available and help them grow into the specifics of the job. We all know who these people are on our campuses and I have found that turning to them in times like this is usually a winning strategy.

But the rules change -- even if the omen doesn’t -- when you move to the next level, where experience and a higher degree of maturity are requisite for success.

I first spotted the challenge at senior levels when candidate pools for vice presidencies started turning up thin both in numbers and in people with the required minimum years of experience in progressively higher levels of responsibility. Searches failed, often only late in the process when the only fully qualified candidate was lured away by another university.

It was at this point that I thought that perhaps in some areas the pools could be expanded by broadening the experience requirement to include work outside higher education. Search committees were at first nervous about this. How, for instance, do you assess the credentials of a candidate with little or no higher education experience compared to those with it, even, or especially when the former has more experience in the area of responsibility itself?

What we found was that by encouraging non-traditional candidates to apply in operational areas such as finance, human resources, technology, government and public relations and even advancement, we started getting applications from creative people who otherwise wouldn’t have been interested, or if interested, would have had no way to engage us.

The pools got a little deeper, but more importantly, some truly interesting non-traditional candidates appeared in the final lists for campus interviews. Though they were never the majority, engaging them stretched our understanding of the areas and led to several hires. Indeed, when the dust had settled I looked up one day and realized that 4 of my 10 direct reports had no higher education experience prior to coming to Roosevelt.

These appointments included the senior vice president for finance and administration and chief financial officer, who was with United Airlines and then the CFO of the Chicago Housing Authority prior to her appointment; the vice president for human resources, who was a VP in a major hospital corporation; the vice president for government relations and university outreach, who held similar positions at a major Chicago bank now headquartered in New York; and the executive director of the Auditorium Theatre, who came to the university from the Detroit Opera Theatre. In addition, a fifth hire was partially new to the academy: the vice president for advancement worked in higher education early in his career, but has spent the last 20 years in community foundations.

What has it meant? First, that our conversations are rich and lively since we often have to explain to these leaders the assumptions that underlie our practices, which challenges us to revisit them as well. Second, we have clearly benefited from new ways of thinking and acting in some vital areas of operations because of the greater depth and variety of experience at top level jobs that these colleagues brought with them.

But perhaps the most significant aspect of working with these talented women and men has been the change in my relationship with them, compared to their predecessors. I have to take more time to mentor them on issues and institutional needs in order to continually contextualize their work both in the university specifically and in higher education generally. Perhaps the most important lesson is that academic people have a high regard for process and that getting the right result through the wrong process causes trouble, while taking time to consult all the various affected constituencies, and especially the faculty, is critical to success. I do this through an aphorism: In higher education we wonder why we should do in a week what we could perfectly well accomplish in six months.

The result has been greater levels of integrated decision-making than might have happened with more experienced higher education hands, plus as an aside the gradual adaptation by the individuals of a higher education mode of thinking, albeit one heavily influenced by the outside world. In short, the longer they serve, the more they adapt to our culture, but meanwhile we benefit from best practices developed outside the academy.

Finally, I think that overall the institution has benefited because this practice has made me a more effective leader by stretching my own understanding and willingness to take calculated risks to hire top talent wherever it can be found.


Charles R. Middleton is president of Roosevelt University.


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