The dean position has become one of the most challenging administrative positions in higher education. Not only does a dean need to provide long term as well as day to day academic leadership but the dean also needs to be a willing and, over time, successful fundraiser. To find a good dean, colleges and universities typically undertake a national search and often use a “head hunter” to help make sure that the effort is as comprehensive as possible. I am presently involved in two deans’ searches, both for very important schools at Hofstra University. We are looking for a business school dean and also a communication dean. We started with almost 250 candidates for these positions. As in any search, it takes almost no time to dramatically reduce the number. The reality is that almost two thirds of the applicants for these positions have almost no qualifications whatsoever for the job. The best example comes not from this search but from an earlier search where a brand new college graduate wrote that he wanted to work in higher education and felt that dean would certainly be a good starting position. Who could argue with logic like this?
Working with the remaining one-third of the candidates, the next step is to further reduce the number to those individuals whose qualifications are strong enough that they merit an interview. We had 24 such individuals, 10 in business and 14 in communication. And over a four day period of time we did an in-depth interview of each of these individuals. The “we” in this case is a committee that consists of faculty, administration, and trustees and the goal is always to develop a consensus slate of finalists. Here again, reducing the number of candidates is not that difficult.
In a number of cases, a candidate comes to the interview not fully prepared. If you go back to a pre-internet time, the expectation of what an outside candidate would know was lower. Colleges prepared materials; if you were familiar with what was sent to you, you were considered prepared. Now we send less but expect more with the internet being the facilitator of these higher expectations. Colleges and Universities have expansive websites and it is not difficult to drill down to schools, departments, majors, minors, and faculty members. If you have not done your homework, if you are not well prepared, and even if you look good on paper, you will likely not be a viable candidate after the interview. In other cases, a candidate may be knowledgeable but either says too much or too little. If there is a pattern of too much or too little(being inarticulate), once again the person will likely not be a viable candidate. Other cases involve a candidate whose experience is too limited, especially in the area of fundraising. If a person has not been involved in fundraising or expresses some reluctance to be fully engaged in fundraising, the candidate will also likely not become a finalist. And if there is anything unusual in a resume that can’t be fully explained, the person will also not likely make it to the next level. For example, if a person is in a different college or university every two or three years, it raises a caution flag even if the experiences are at a senior level. Not only will the candidate need to make a very compelling statement as to why this pattern exists, but the references checked must fully back up that statement.
Our 24 interviews resulted in five finalists—three in communication and two in business. At this stage (and with the prior agreement of the finalists), all the candidacies become public and each of the finalists is brought back to campus for a full day of interviews. There are key interviews with the President; there are interviews with all the faculty in the school; interviews with the other deans; interviews with administrators, staff, and in the case of communication, interviews with students. And everyone is encouraged to communicate their feelings and recommendations after these interviews to the either the President or to me. And we certainly place great weight on the feedback we receive. In addition, especially with outside candidates, the reference checking takes place simultaneously. What will we find out? If I (or another search committee member) know someone well where a finalist is working the information is often both accurate and very helpful. If I am cold calling, the value is much more limited. Often individuals go out of their way not to say anything negative but, by managing the news, valuable information is often not communicated. This is bad enough but there are also other times, when someone wants their problem to be someone else’s problem, when the positive is vastly exaggerated or perhaps manufactured. And at times, the person checking references doesn’t ask the right questions or isn’t willing to invest the time in follow up questions to make the conversation as worthwhile as it can be. More than once, I have been amazed at the questions I have been asked and the questions I haven’t been asked. For example, a good starting question is whether a candidate is collegial. Clearly collegiality is an essential quality in a dean, but asking about collegiality alone doesn’t tell you about conflict resolution skills, about consensus building, about respect for diversity, and about leadership qualities. I will always answer a question honestly but I don’t feel an obligation to provide answers to questions that haven’t been asked.
At the end of the day, this is an imperfect process. Presentation skills may at times trump substance; recommendations may not fully inform. Mistakes will be made. There are in fact times in my career when I have worked (relatively briefly) with these mistakes. However, I am not aware of any better process and handled with care it is inclusive, transparent, and mostly successful.