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Apparently, the president of the University of Akron is stepping down and apologizing for the unforgivable sin of … applying for another job.

I don’t get it. I’ve seen it personally, and I still don’t get it.

I’ve never heard of a professor catching flak for applying elsewhere. If anything, I’ve heard of them using other opportunities to try to generate counteroffers. (That doesn’t work in some collective bargaining environments, but that’s another issue.) And in just about every other field, there’s nothing unusual about someone looking for another job. Sometimes it’s for professional advancement, sometimes for family reasons, sometimes for personal reasons, and sometimes a combination of those. They’re all valid.

But at the higher levels of college administration, looking is sometimes taken as an offense. And that’s even true for positions that don’t include tenure, and that are on annual contracts. 

In olden times, it may have been possible to keep searches relatively quiet if they occurred over a distance. But in the age of the internet, a press release announcing finalists will make the rounds on a candidate’s home campus in milliseconds. For the candidates who don’t win the position, every loss is a matter of record, and often of prurient interest on the home campus.

Nobody designed the system to work that way. It was an accident of history, and, like many accidents of history, it claims casualties. Colleges looking for presidents get weaker candidate pools than they should when candidates don’t want to deal with the fallout of being “exposed” and not winning. Candidates who make the final round and don’t win have to bear a very public loss, and often pay a political price at home.

I’ve seen a trend of some boards starting to ignore search processes altogether and just appointing someone. While that raises obvious issues of its own, I understand one nonsinister appeal of that approach: you can get candidates who otherwise wouldn’t apply. It’s an easy way to improve the candidate pool. If the normal process deters good people, I can see the argument for skirting the normal process.

I just don’t think that, as an industry, we’ve really thought this through. Asking people on one-year contracts not to look elsewhere is presumptuous at best. If we want to reduce administrative turnover, as I sometimes read, then we should offer administrators multiyear contracts. If the most we’ll offer is a year, then there’s absolutely no justification for punishing someone for looking. Anyone who can be told in June not to come back in July has prima facie justification for looking elsewhere at any time.

Yes, turnover can be an issue. But suboptimal hires can be, too, and that can happen when the pools are weakened. In fact, suboptimal hiring may drive some turnover when the limitations of weaker performers become obvious. We’re likelier to get better fits if people aren’t punished for trying to find better ones. And we’re less likely to stagnate if we stop cutting off ambition at the knees.

Higher ed culture is idiosyncratic in many ways. I spend much of my times defending its quirks to powerful people on the outside who don’t understand it. But this quirk befuddles me, too.

If we want administrative stability, we should offer it. If we’re unwilling to offer it, then tolerating folks looking elsewhere is the absolute least we should do. Fair is fair.

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