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How Colleges and Universities Search for Senior Leaders

The steps colleges and universities take in the tedious/grueling/rigorous exercise of hiring top administrators.

February 15, 2022

It’s the height of the hoop-jumping season for aspiring senior administrators participating in national searches (there are no further references to basketball or March Madness in this essay). If you’ve ever wondered, “How did they get hired?” the following provides a sketch of the tedious/grueling/rigorous exercise in persistence—that is, the step-by-step process typically followed by the candidates and the institutions they hope to serve.

Recruitment and Nominations

Frequently, an independent search firm manages the hiring process in concert with the institution’s leadership. A campus search committee is formed with members selected from the ranks of constituencies such as board members, current senior leaders, faculty, staff, students and community members. The individual(s) with the highest authority typically serves as the committee chair (or co-chairs).

A leadership profile outlines an ideal candidate’s qualifications, experience, disposition and expertise. Background information about the institution (and the division to be lead if the position is other than president/chancellor) rounds out the profile. Not only are advertisements placed in professional publications, but the search firm also contacts qualified individuals via email to encourage application or the nomination of others. Recruiters may reach out to current leaders to secure nominations. Doing so builds a robust pool of qualified candidates.

Sometimes recruiters speak with nominees and other highly qualified candidates to gauge fit with the institution and to answer questions about the opportunity. These conversations can be casual and short, or they can be a preliminary informal interview lasting 30 to 45 minutes.

Application Materials

Application materials for senior administrative positions include a cover letter, CV and references, which sounds like any other position, but it’s more detailed and nuanced. Cover letters may be more than one page and are expected to convey how the candidate leads, not simply what they’ve done and why they’re a good fit. A CV (Latin, curriculum vitae, or “course of life“) provides a comprehensive account of a candidate’s career breadth and depth, unlike a résumé. A candidate for a senior-level position may have a CV numbering some 10 to 20 pages (and sometimes in 10-point type, single spaced).

For references, the candidates are often asked to provide at least five names, including supervisors, peers and individuals the candidate has supervised. At the final stage, the recruiters and institution typically conduct what’s termed an “off-list reference check.” The recruiter notifies the candidate and then contacts others with whom the candidate has worked with in the past. For a president/chancellor search, sometimes committee members visit the finalists’ current campuses to conduct interviews with constituents and to view campus operations firsthand.

Other application materials may include written statements, disclosures and formal assessments. Written statements typically focus on leadership and diversity, equity and inclusion. Disclosures include questions about reasons for leaving previous positions, whether disciplinary action or formal state or federal claims had been taken against the candidate, and the outcome of those claims. Another, less typical, part of application materials may be the results of a formal assessment completed by the candidate, such as those measuring temperament and aptitude.

Narrowing the Pool

The search firm may receive a hundred or hundreds of applications. Search firms often review applications prior to the campus search committee to create a smaller applicant pool for consideration. Reasons to disqualify candidates may include incomplete materials, does not meet the basic qualifications, no or little experience, or a lack of understanding of the role. Someone once generously titled this step “weeding out innocent bystanders.”

Next, the campus search committee reviews applications and rates candidates using a rubric (or scoring guide) based upon the leadership profile. Led by the recruiter and the committee chair, the committee discusses the results. The top 10 or so are identified for the first round of interviews.

Interviews and Final Selection

The first round of interviews, often called “airport interviews,” usually take places in hotel conference rooms located at or nearby airports. Airport interviews have numerous advantages—confidentiality for candidates and the institution, efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Held over several days, candidates interview in succession with care taken so candidates do not encounter each other. Each candidate speaks with the search committee for approximately an hour, which one could visualize as a Senate inquiry–type experience. All candidates are asked the same questions.

Alternatively, some institutions conduct the first-round interviews at a conference center, large hotel or the like, especially if there is a great distance to an airport or necessary accommodations aren’t available at the airport. During the COVID-19 pandemic, in-person interviews were replaced by the less-than-ideal virtual interviews (imagine trying to read the room on Zoom. Note: darting eyes can be somewhat disconcerting to search committee members). Following the airport or virtual interviews, the candidates are again discussed, ranked, finalists identified and invitations issued for in-person campus interviews with usually two to three finalists.

Campus interviews for each candidate are conducted over a one- to two-day period. Depending on the institution, campus interviews may or may not be confidential. Various internal and external constituent groups, select individuals, and the search committee interview each candidate. These meetings often include interviews during meals and special receptions to evaluate comportment during social situations (Fashion tip: a jaunty scarf covers all manner of stains from rogue shrimp cocktail). Candidates also make formal presentations and answer questions at public forums. Identical itineraries (with a minimalist approach to bathroom breaks) for all candidates ensure fairness.

After completing final interviews, stakeholders involved in the interview process complete surveys and offer feedback regarding each candidate. The search committee ranks the finalists and delivers a recommendation and rationale to the president/chancellor for cabinet-level senior administrators or the board chair for the president/chancellor for final decision making. For some institutions within a public system, the system president/chancellor and the board also approve or ratify the decision.

The Offer and Negotiations

Next, the president or board chair makes an offer to the chosen candidate. Terms are discussed, such as length of the contract, compensation, process for continuance and termination of employment, start date, rank and tenure, and other support mechanisms (such as moving expenses, residence, vehicle, bonuses, spousal/partner role, et al.). Negotiations can be complex; attorneys are involved. A contract is finalized. After a process extending six months to a year, a public announcement is finally issued.

And that’s how they got hired.

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Kathy Johnson Bowles

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