Given the unsettled state of higher education, it is precisely the time for our institutions to recruit leaders who can best serve, no matter their backgrounds or orientations. Any comprehensive leadership search will likely have lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender individuals on its candidate slate. LGBT candidates have reached the highest levels of college and university leadership, including the presidency. The group LGBTQ Presidents in Higher Education, formed in 2010, has grown to more than 60 openly LGBT presidents serving a variety of institutions. Progress has been made, and LGBT executives are more at home in academia than they have ever been.
Yet there is still farther to go – as there is with other underrepresented groups – in how LGBT candidates are treated as they interview and pursue leadership positions. In short, search committees can be savvier in their understanding of these candidates. It is not appropriate or, in most cases, legal for a search committee to inquire about sexual orientation or gender identity during the course of a recruitment. Increasingly, however, many candidates choose to make their orientation known during the search process, often leading to uncertain or awkward reactions and comments from search committee members. This will not change overnight. The education of search committees and campus representatives regarding LGBT job candidates is an ongoing process.
To that end, we offer below 10 guideposts that search committees can refer to when working with openly LGBT candidates. We present these rules of thumb as a way of generating conversation and greater awareness around the treatment of LGBT candidates in academic searches, in the spirit of making leadership recruitment as equitable and inclusive as it can be.
1. The recruitment of candidates representing the LGBT community need not be considered a break from the past or a policy shift. Higher education has benefited greatly from LGBT leaders through the years (whether their orientation or identity was openly stated or not) and will continue to do so. At any given institution, it is likely that some current leaders are LGBT, and thus committee members or the larger community should no longer view an LGBT hire as groundbreaking or controversial.
2. Search committees can be more proactive in including openly LGBT candidates in their recruitment strategies. Leadership diversity is a critical goal in American higher education. When launching a search, committee members and campus leaders typically discuss the development of a diverse slate of candidates, and in doing so can be more deliberate in ensuring that LGBT applicants are included in that framework.
3. Committees should be flexible with LGBT candidates because individuals will differ greatly in terms of whether, how, and when they disclose and discuss this kind of information during the search process. With recent changes in society, candidates are more comfortable sharing personal information and search committees can expect more people to present their sexual orientation or gender identity during the search process. Some candidates will not disclose, in that they wish to keep very separate their personal and professional lives. Their reasons for nondisclosure may include a desire to avoid discrimination or a general interest in maintaining a certain level of privacy. Other candidates will insist on fully disclosing personal information – regarding their marital status, children and other personal matters that are commonly shared by job candidates – in the belief that positions of leadership in higher education require one’s private and public lives to intertwine. As such, they feel it is best to be forthcoming to ensure a good fit between candidate, position, institution and community.
4. Committee members can educate themselves on terminology and language respectful to LGBT candidates. If a candidate presents his/her sexual orientation as a topic for discussion, committee members should refrain from using phrases such as “lifestyle choice” or “alternative lifestyle.” (Being LGBT is neither a choice nor a lifestyle.) Depending on the individual, some current appropriate terminology to use in such situations includes: LGBT, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender. In the same vein and depending on the situation, "partner" can be used in addition to or instead of "spouse." As more LGBT people marry, there are increasing references to "husband" and "wife" and committee members can follow the lead of candidates as to which terms are preferable regarding their families.
5. Committees must resist resorting to stereotypes or overgeneralizations that may be misleading or misrepresentative of individual candidates. An LGBT candidate may have children or have served in the military. A gay man may appear very masculine (e.g., played college football) while a lesbian woman may appear very feminine (e.g., was a cheerleader). LGBT candidates are as diverse and unique as all members of our society.
6. It is imperative that the committee evaluate LGBT candidates strictly by their qualifications and suitability for the position. Questions or concerns about how, for example, stakeholders and the campus community will respond to an LGBT leader should not be a determining factor. It may be naïve to think that this will hold true on every campus, but the goal remains that one’s sexual orientation or gender identity should never eliminate or hinder a candidate from fair consideration.
7. Being LGBT in a predominantly heterosexual society can provide candidates with perspectives that serve them well in top leadership positions. LGBT candidates know personally the challenges of succeeding within a historically oppressed, underrepresented segment of society and how, as professionals, to prevail against stereotypes, bias and discrimination. Increasingly, candidates are assessed according to their formative experiences and breadth of insight, and the background of LGBT candidates can add richness and value to their ability to lead and work with others.
8. In like manner with all candidates, LGBT leaders’ spouses or partners, as well as children, should be included in the search process (e.g., given employment assistance, community tours, etc.).
9. As part of its role to sell candidates on the position, the committee should highlight resources that exist in the community for diverse individuals, including LGBT people and families. Members should educate and familiarize themselves with organizations and activities that represent diverse groups.
10. When an LGBT candidate is selected for a leadership role, the search committee and other campus leaders should defer to that individual regarding whether and how to share information about his/her sexual orientation as well as family and marital status with the community and media.
All committee members who participate in a search process want to yield the very best candidate to successfully lead their university or college. They must act to ensure that no candidates are marginalized.
The best search process is one that assumes, from the start, that some candidates will be LGBT and treats LGBT candidates with understanding and fairness. This approach that was perhaps once seen as courageous is now simply a best practice, an integral part of a search process that is respectful and inclusive, and will be, in most cases, highly successful.
Karen M. Whitney is president of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. Jon Derek Croteau is senior partner with the executive search and solutions firm Witt/Kieffer.
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