Engineered for Speed

MIT's three-month presidential search suggests that with all the change going on in higher education, universities don't have the time or appetite for drawn-out selection processes.

May 23, 2012
Rafael Reif as his selection is announced

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is good at “fast.”

Want to travel quickly over water? An MIT team is responsible for the world’s fastest human-powered hydrofoil. Need a robot that can run up to 18 miles per hour? A former MIT researcher has that covered too. And not to be limited to the physical world, the institute’s faculty can also claim to the world’s fastest code-breaking algorithm.

While those achievements captured headlines and accolades, the university’s latest announcement might be more shocking to individuals in higher education. After President Susan Hockfield announced on Feb. 16 that she was stepping down from the position, the MIT Corporation only took three months to complete a search for her successor, announcing on May 16 that the institute’s provost, L. Rafael Reif, would take over as the next president.

Searches for presidents at major research universities tend to take between six months and a year, and can involve dozens of meetings with campus groups and interviews with prospective presidents. The University of Wisconsin system recently laid out the roughly yearlong process it will undertake to select a new chancellor for the flagship campus in Madison, including pre-search meetings with campus groups and public on-campus interviews with the finalists. Multiple search consultants said the three-month turnaround between the time Hockfield announced that she was stepping down and the corporation’s announcement that it selected Reif to be the university’s new president was “very fast.”

“The search for our 17th president featured the same rigor that was devoted to the search for our 16th president,” said John Reed, chairman of the MIT Corporation, in a statement. “I was very happy that we worked efficiently enough to allow the search to be finished quickly, but we were very clear with ourselves from the outset that we would not do anything to rush the process.”

Multiple search consultants – who did not work on the MIT search – noted that they are seeing an increase in demand for quick searches for both presidents and provost. “The general state on most college campuses is that there are so many decisions to be made – we’re in probably one of the fastest-moving periods in higher education,” said Jessica Kozloff, president of Academic Search. “From a board’s perspective, or as a president hiring a provost, you don’t want to tread water. You want to get leadership on board and going.” Because there is so much pressure to make significant change quickly, she said, boards don't want to spend a long time with lame duck or interim presidents.





Kozloff and others said there is some benefit to speeding up a search, particularly because a shorter timeline reduces uncertainty for both the campus and the candidates. Short searches also reduce the risk of leaks. But consultants also worried that focusing too much on a quick turnaround could freeze certain campus groups out of the process – notably faculty – which could result in strained relations once the new president is on campus. “The most successful candidate is typically one that the campus community feels involved with the selection,” Kozloff said.

Michael A. Baer, a vice president and director with Isaacson, Miller, said there is an easy way to speed up the search process – limit participation. “The less open and less democratic a search is, the more quickly it can get done,” he said, noting that that's probably not an advisable path for most institutions. In MIT's case, Reif had been a member of the university's faculty since 1980 and served as the university's provost since 2005, so he was well-known by most faculty by the time of his selection.

Kozloff said there are two limiting factors in the speed of a search: the academic calendar and a campus’s culture. If a search takes place over an extended campus break, such as the winter holiday, then that’s three weeks when no work is getting done. Since MIT’s search took place during the spring semester, there were only a handful of days when the campus wasn’t in session.

The larger limiting factor is how involved the campus community feels it needs to be in the search, Kozloff said. “What is often required by an expectation of the campus is that there will be some campus involvement before the final decision is made,” she said. This can come in varying forms. For some institutions, it means faculty, staff, student, and community representatives on the search committee. At others, it means meetings between the search committee and campus groups. Some universities, particularly publics, require candidates to appear publicly before faculty members.

Short searches also run the risk of missing potential candidates, Baer said, though that is probably more common at smaller, less well-known institutions. With a place such as MIT, Baer and Kozloff said, most potential candidates likely made their interest known.

Samuel M. Allen, chair of the MIT faculty, said he has not heard any negative feedback about the selection process and said he believes community views were well-represented throughout the search. The selection committee comprised 10 faculty members and 12 trustees. Search committee members had at least a dozen campus meetings with different departments, he said.

They also worked with a student advisory committee that sought broad undergraduate and graduate student input.

Allen said the main reason the search went quickly was that Reed got the committee to work efficiently. Allen said Reed was in his office within two hours of Hockfield’s announcement to determine how faculty members would be represented in the process. Allen said the search committee met every week, sometimes on weekends, and that the group had a general consensus about what they wanted in a new president.

In his statement, Reed said the speed of the search was aided by the presence of a general consensus candidate. “We had the good fortune of a candidate so strong that, as our list got shorter, an overwhelming feeling of excitement about his candidacy emerged,” he said.

The chairman of the search committee, James A. Champy, had also chaired the search that selected Hockfield in 2004, so he knew how the process should go.

Because of the speed of the search and Reif’s selection, there was speculation that the corporation already knew who it wanted to hire before the process began, or that the committee knew it wanted an MIT insider. Allen said that is not true, and that the committee looked broadly. He said there was consensus that the board wanted someone with an MIT connection and who understood the campus, though that didn’t necessarily mean a current employee.


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