Bridging the Cross-Cultural Divide

Katherine Haley on how colleges can ensure that faculty members and trustees work together effectively on presidential search committees.

January 11, 2013

In a presidential search, faculty members, trustees and other constituencies work together to make a momentous decision for the university -- the appointment of the institution’s next president. When presidential search committees are constituted, members little suspect that they have embarked upon a potentially transformative cross-cultural learning experience very much like those the university strives to provide for students. The presidential search committee is perhaps the only occasion when the very diverse stakeholders of the institution are expected to work closely together on a high-stakes project requiring a concrete deliverable -- finding the institution’s next president. 

The best presidential search committees are carefully constructed to have representation from the broad array of campus constituencies: faculty, trustees, administrators, alumni, students, and sometimes local business or community leaders. Each constituency brings its own cultural framework and set of norms to the table. Of the many constituencies represented on the committee, the two groups which are, frankly, the most central to the process -- the faculty and the trustees -- are also the most different from one another culturally.

Bend to the Southwest

If the search is to be a success, faculty and trustees must learn to understand one another’s culture -- and language. When I see trustees and faculty beginning to work with one another, I’m reminded of Guy Deutscher’s recent article in The New York Times Magazine where he described how “geographical’ languages challenge our western understanding of how the world is “oriented” -- e.g., a native speaker from north Queensland, if teaching you to dance, would direct you to “first bend to the southwest, then sweep your east arm to the north.” Conversations between faculty and trustees can be just as “disorienting.”

Recent events like those at the University of Virginia have underscored how different are faculty and trustee culture -- and how easily misunderstandings can occur.  Recruited from the corporate or professional world because they are successful leaders capable of providing valuable advice, connections and resources to the university, trustees are accustomed to business models, a focus on the bottom line -- and command-and-control decision-making. To them, academe seems like a very strange land indeed.

The natives of that strange land are the faculty, and to them it is the corporate world that looks alien. Faculty cultural norms are nonprofit, non- (even anti-) hierarchical, noncorporate, mission-driven; their focus is on their scholarly pursuits, students, teaching, and university service. Accustomed to a shared governance model, they expect to play a role in universitywide decision making.

Profile and Process: Looking for God on a Good Day

There are two critical junctures in the presidential search process where faculty and trustee cultural frameworks collide: the first is in defining the credentials of the future president; the second is establishing a process for interviewing the finalists. At the commencement of the search, the committee begins to build a profile of desired qualities and experiences for their next president. Inevitably, the committee constructs a very lengthy list of desired qualities -- which they all then admit with chagrin is tantamount to asking for “God on a good day.” On some fairly abstract things, they can easily agree -- like “leadership,” “vision,” “intelligence,” “creativity,” “sense of humor,” and “track record of senior administrative experience.”

But the conversation begins to stall when things get concrete: for example, what degrees and academic experience are required? Here, trustees will be surprised at the intensity and detail of the discussion that ensues. From a trustee perspective, an effective leader can adapt to virtually any context -- from their point of view leadership is leadership. Corporate CEOs move from sector to sector with relative ease, so why could not a successful CEO without a terminal degree make a strong university president?

But from a faculty perspective, context is all. For them, a leader cannot be effective unless she or he understands the academic culture. They ask, how could a president lead a university without having direct experience in teaching and scholarship and shared governance? Initially, most faculty will argue strongly for “a substantial record of teaching and scholarship” and an “earned terminal degree” as requirements for the next president. Faculty then further astound trustees with a technical parsing of which terminal degrees are acceptable. Are professional doctorates acceptable (J.D.; M.D., Ed.D.), or only research doctorates?

As the committee explores one another’s varying perspectives on this issue, a process of discovery usually occurs. Good things happen when committee members on both sides listen to one another and chart a way forward which blends their two realities. In the case of academic credentials, it is often the trustees who yield to the values of their faculty colleagues; easily 90 percent of all presidential leadership profiles either require an earned doctorate and a substantial record of teaching and scholarship, or list it as “preferred.” 

The faculty, on the other hand, find themselves exploring terra incognita as they consider the trustees’ passion for such things as “entrepreneurial leadership,” “understanding of business models,” and “financial acumen.” And despite the faculty’s desire for a president who is steeped in academe, given recent tectonic economic and other challenges to higher education, they and the trustees usually find it quite easy to agree that they want a president who is financially savvy, knowledgeable about trends in higher education -- and also an active and successful fund-raiser.

The committee’s discussions on the presidential profile reveal not only the inherent tensions between faculty and trustee cultures, but also the outsized and essentially contradictory expectations that virtually everyone these days has for university presidents. A career spent in academe seldom allows for much experience with, or inclination toward, fund-raising, entrepreneurship or financial management, and vice versa. Where the dial is set will have everything to do with the current situation of the university and on the negotiations of the faculty and trustee search committee members. Institutions vary widely in their needs at the current time. If fund-raising and business skills are much needed, then often the compromise is made on the side of the terminal degree, making it preferred rather than required -- and on the desired depth of academic experience. Increasingly, for instance, institutions facing financial challenges are turning to vice presidents for development and enrollment who have skills with finance, marketing, and fund-raising, or to nontraditional candidates.

Interviewing Candidates: A Hybrid Approach

A second major culture clash occurs when faculty and trustees discover they have very different concepts of the ideal way to conduct interviews of their finalists. Accustomed to swift, highly confidential personnel decisions, trustees are surprised to learn that everyone associated with the university -- from the housekeeping staff, to the vice presidents, to the athletic department, to the students, to the local alumni -- harbors the expectation that they will be invited to see the candidates interview in a variety of highly public venues, and further expects that they will be asked for their input. At this point, faculty on the committee will be called upon to provide a “translation” of the academic cultural mindset by revealing to trustees that the entire university feels entitled to a fully public inspection of three to four finalists on campus.

Trustees will argue, rightly, that candidates will be reluctant to be exposed publicly if they are one of three or four; candidates are understandably concerned about what their home campus will think of their bid for a position at another institution, particularly if they are not chosen. The pool will almost inevitably be richer with sitting presidents and those who hold other prominent positions if candidates are spared public exposure. Faculty and others on the committee will counter that the new president might be disadvantaged if the interviews in which he or she is chosen do not affirm the open culture of the university. Really, both sides are right, so it’s a matter of balancing one “good” against another. Search committees and boards of trustees who place a high value on identifying a sitting president as their next leader will almost inevitably turn to a more private, or “hybrid” approach to interviewing their finalists. How the two approaches are assimilated in the design of the final interview process will reflect a negotiated set of new, shared values as the committee begins to forge a culture of its own.

There are some important strategies to employ if the committee is to conduct a successful presidential search.

Conducting a “Cross-Cultural” Presidential Search

  • Build committee esprit de corps: It’s important that all key constituencies be represented on the search committee; of equal importance is that these diverse members come to appreciate that they have different frames of reference, different norms. In particular, faculty and trustees need to hear one another talk about what kind of president they seek and how they see the process playing out. Surfacing and negotiating their differences early on will pay dividends later in the search.
  • Conduct due diligence -- listen to the community: At the commencement of the search, the committee not only needs to hear one another, but to hear from others at the university. What are their dreams for the future? What issues need to be addressed? What kind of leader do they envision? Hearing from the broad array of campus stakeholders broadens the committee’s understanding and builds trust in the community.
  • Memorialize the committee’s shared understanding of the profile for the new president in a detailed position description: Once the committee has heard from one another and from the campus community, it must come to agreement on the profile of the new president. The final details are usually negotiated through negotiation, group editing, discussion and then approval of a carefully constructed position description. This public statement is tantamount to a covenant -- an agreement in writing of the committee’s consensus that will shape the selection process.
  • Be highly intentional and explicit about the search process: Discuss and negotiate carefully the degree of transparency the search will have, and which steps in the process will be open and which not. As consultants we always say, be as transparent about the process as possible so as to engage the community, and as confidential as possible about the candidates until the final stage of the search. Prepare the community early on if it is possible that the finalist interview process will be a more private one than expected, and explain the rationale and benefits.

At its best, like all good intercultural experiences, the presidential search process can be a galvanizing and transformative experience -- not just for the committee, but for the institution as a whole. The varied cultures and constituencies have the rare opportunity to peer into one another’s worlds. The final payoff -- if the process of discernment and intercultural exploration and orientation is thorough and open-minded -- is that together they will identify a new president who possesses an acute understanding of the complex cross-cultural currents of the university, and who can  bridge them to achieve the goals of the university.


Katherine Haley is an executive search consultant in Witt/Kieffer's higher education and not-for-profit practice. Previously she was the first female president of Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania.


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