Searching for Success

Herman Berliner shares lessons for how you can avoid mistakes when searching for people to serve in top-level positions like president, provost, vice president or dean.

April 12, 2022
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All searches are important, but some are clearly more important than others. Mistakes matter when searching for a faculty member or a department chair, yet they matter even more when made at the dean, vice president or president level. In my half century in higher education, I’ve participated in presidential searches, associate and vice provost searches, vice president searches, and dean searches that have both succeeded and failed. In many cases, I chaired or co-chaired the search committee.

Along the way, I’ve gained insights as to what makes a successful search, and I would like to share a few of them.

Develop an honest job description. While admissions materials always display the campus on a perfect day, job descriptions and advertisements for administrators shouldn’t emulate that approach. In my experience, senior administration is a combination of poetry and plumbing; if the plumbing is not working, there won’t be a conducive environment for poetry, and without poetry and vision, a university cannot move forward.

During the height of the COVID crisis, most senior administrative positions were all “plumbing”—focused on keeping everyone safe while weathering the crisis and facilitating the coursework needed for students to make progress. Even in more normal times, not acknowledging myriad impactful administrative responsibilities doesn’t do justice to those positions.

For instance, the ability to raise funds is essential for many top administrator positions. “Poetry” costs money, student success costs money, faculty support costs money and fundraising for programs, scholarships and distinguished professorships often makes the difference between a greater or lesser number of positive initiatives. Job descriptions should be encouraging to attract highly qualified candidates, but they also need to be comprehensive representations of what the position really entails and what the true expectations are.

Select a search firm carefully. Search firms can provide invaluable assistance, but they or the people working in them may be perfect for one search but not as qualified for another. Unless a search needs to start instantly, you should interview multiple firms before making the decision. Also, a firm may put forth a well-known higher education leader to help run your search, but make sure to establish how involved that person will actually be and what specific expertise they can bring to your specific search.

Before deciding on a search firm, double-check that it’s not involved in a similar search with another institution. Also make sure that the search firm representatives embody diversity, as that will enhance the chances of recruiting a diverse pool of candidates.

Once chosen, the search firm will ask to do the screening of all the candidates and then forward those candidates they think are qualified. But the search firm should not be the absolute determinant of appropriate candidates. One or more members of the search committee should also review the application of every candidate. Of course, reviewing all cover letters and résumés is time-consuming, and many applicants may not be qualified. In one of my earlier searches, a person applied who had not yet received their bachelor’s degree but felt their future was in education and a deanship would be an excellent place to start. Nevertheless, investing extra time in reviewing all applicants provides extra assurance that no highly qualified candidate has been missed.

Form a truly diverse search committee. The committee should give the clear signal that it is strongly committed to the values of diversity, equity and inclusion. Similarly, the position description should also note that the successful candidate will have a strong commitment to DEI. But “diversity” must be defined broadly. For example, you should strive to include faculty members on the committee who are on the tenure track or just recently tenured as well as those who are not on the tenure track. Senior faculty have much to contribute but often have different priorities than faculty at an earlier stage in their career or faculty on a different path.

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The fields and disciplines represented should also be diverse and represent the institution’s core values as well as new initiatives it plans to pursue. In provost searches, deans and vice presidents who will work with the person chosen are also essential. Student representation is another way of assuring broad diversity.

Substantial trustee involvement in presidential searches is a given, but also consider having representatives of the board on search committees for the provost, deans and some vice presidents, such as the chief financial or information officers. Trustees gain a better understanding of issues and enhanced sophistication in their decision-making roles by engaging in the search process.

I’ve purposely not suggested including the person presently in the position on the search committee. Many senior administrators, after years of service, not only understand the positions they are in but have excelled in them. Yet they will look to replicate their skill set in their replacement when, in fact, there are many ways to succeed in a position. The committee should evaluate candidates with a fresh eye, and only after finalists are selected should they ask the incumbent to talk with each of them and provide a recommendation.

Colleges sometimes create several separate search committees—establishing, for example, a trustee committee as well as a faculty committee, with the faculty committee advising the trustee committee. What has always concerned me about this division by constituencies is that it allows candidates to tailor their answers to the constituency they’re interacting with. Everyone is better served by hearing and reflecting on the same answers at the same time.

Having a broadly diverse committee is not without its challenges. The more members of the committee and the more different points of view, the more difficult consensus becomes. But no recommendations should go forward from a search committee without a candidate having overwhelming support. A substantial minority opposing someone’s appointment is a truly relevant signal. We all want the search completed, but it is far better to continue searching than it is to hire someone who may very well not be successful.

Ensure confidentiality. More members on a search committee also translates into greater probability that confidentiality will not be successfully maintained. In an ideal world, everyone would know who the candidates are. Sunshine and transparency are desirable. However, someone applying for a position could have their current position undermined and become more expendable if their candidacy becomes known.

Breaching confidentiality and providing insider information to a candidate, such as what questions will be asked, is particularly egregious. Search firms, at times, need support in encouraging highly promising prospects to become candidates. That can take the form of institutional expertise that can be crucial in helping a prospect make a positive decision. But converting a top prospect to candidate by providing insider information can compromise a level playing field. The search firm and every member of the search committee should sign a confidentiality agreement.

Conduct thoughtful and consistent interviews. The committee should ask every candidate the same questions—otherwise, you’ll be in a noncomparable situation—and those questions should accurately reflect the responsibilities of the position. You should give the candidate the opportunity to make a brief opening statement and briefly ask any questions they have at the end of the interview. The total time for an interview should be about an hour and a half, with a 15-minute cushion built in, in case the discussion takes extra time.

When you interview multiple candidates on the same day, limit their number to five candidates, with a break after the first two or three. Scheduling too many interviews leads to diminishing returns. And at the end of each day, you should review, at least preliminarily, the candidates you’ve met.

The pandemic has brought with it the need to do more virtual interviewing. But given the importance of interpersonal skills for senior level positions, the final round of interviews should be in person. You should never make the decision based solely on virtual interactions.

Vet final candidates thoroughly. Once finalists are selected, fully check references—not only those the candidate provides but from other people who can provide highly relevant information. In decades of searching, I have never received a letter or an email or had a conversation with a reference provided by the candidate that has been anything other than positive. Yes, I’ve had faint praise conversations, which are usually telling, but negatives seem almost nonexistent. It may turn out that the ability to reach out to other individuals who may have relevant information can be invaluable. Being in a rush to conclude a search and leaving out a careful reference check has without question led to mistakes in hiring.

As part of the process, you should conduct a criminal background check and highest-degree verification. Some institutions also arrange for a credit check to take place, although other than for positions like the chief financial officer, that may not be relevant.

In most searches, the committee makes their recommendation to the person (provost or president) or body (the Board of Trustees) that the position reports to. Usually, more than one finalist should be recommended. You’ll want to provide a choice for the decision maker to avoid the risk that they don’t approve of the single candidate and you end up with a failed search.

Negotiate on a timely basis. Once a final decision has been made but before formally offering the position, talk with the candidate about the terms of the appointment. Compensation, incentives, contract length and tenure, if applicable, should all be agreed upon in a reasonable amount of time, and then a formal contract offered. I’ve been involved in searches where detailed negotiations have taken place after the formal offer is made. The longer the process takes, the more uncomfortable it becomes for everyone. And then if the search does not conclude successfully, everyone involved is embarrassed.

Fifty years of experience have led me to these best practices. I hope you can make use of them and that your searches will be the success stories we all want.

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Herman Berliner is the Lawrence Herbert Distinguished Professor at Hofstra University. He served a total of 28 years as Hofstra’s provost and 12 years as dean of the Zarb School of Business.

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