Goodbye to Procrustes And Goldilocks

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, a president-turned-presidential search consultant, considers why many candidacies are needlessly ruled out, and suggests that the questions asked may be too narrow.

October 18, 2007

We have all heard about Procrustes, the mythological Greek bandit who stretched short visitors and lopped off limbs of taller guests to make them fit his bed. I imagine that Procrustes himself fit his bed perfectly. That is, he saw himself as the ideal height and of course the ideal being. To invoke a less brutal tale, we might say this is the Goldilocks understanding of the world where my bed, and of course my porridge, are “just right.”

I have Procrustes and Goldilocks on my mind because after 30 years as a university president, I am now reinventing myself as a professor who will also serve as a consultant to Korn/Ferry’s higher education practice. As a faculty member, I hope to teach and write about the academic world, particularly its leadership. And, on an adjunct basis, I hope to be helpful, in a clinical way, identifying the next generation of university presidents. Reflecting on this reminded me of a story. A distinguished friend of mine was in the running to be president of a land-grant university. His credentials as a professor, dean, vice-president, and provost were the best any university could hope for, let alone expect. He had two earned doctorates. He made it to the short list of three or four candidates. Then he learned he had been cut, the reason being that he had spent his entire prior career in private universities, and this shortcoming proved fatal.

What makes this recollected story more interesting and poignant is my friend and colleague got exactly the same response that I received from exactly the same institution when I was a candidate for its presidency over 20 years ago. I wondered what they were thinking then and continue to wonder what they are thinking now.

The board of trustees of that public university naturally has changed and no doubt most of the faculty and the administration have been renewed. But the antipathy against a career in private universities has proved much more durable and incomprehensible: they still make a Procrustean bed and find it just right to sleep in.

Where and how does this thinking arise? My hunch is that it comes from a sense of exceptionalism, a belief that State U. or Leafy Quad College is just right and thus a candidate for the presidency, or even a deanship, should have a résumé and experiences that fit right in. Of course, these similarities are a matter of form rather than substance.

The substantive differences between any two institutions may lie in size, wealth, the faculty, traditions, religious affiliation, physical location, the student pipeline, and other possibilities, but the form of its charter -- public or private -- does not seem in any way probative of difference. Like all such notions, the one I have been describing is arguably unjustified.

This troubles me. As I anticipate my role as a trusted advisor, I am concerned that I may act in the same way. I have been the successful and unsuccessful object of searches, but I have no experience seeking a university president (searching for deans and professors is not the same). And in this way, I am in abundant, if not necessarily good, company. The odds are long that any member of a presidential search committee will have ever done it before -- and just as long that, having done it once, no member of the committee will ever do it again. There’s usually no practice or rehearsal.

As far as I can tell, many of the firms universities engage to help get the search going do not routinely instruct members of the committee deeply in the art and mystery of their craft. Left to their own devices, the committee members are likely to fall back on their personal experiences. They may earnestly believe themselves to be open-minded and clear-sighted and be sure they have no preconditions in mind. Unless, however, they examine themselves closely and, ideally, undergo some introspection to reveal any lurking predispositions, it seems likely that some institutional or personal perspective (or both) will inevitably inform their thinking and, ultimately, their choice of candidate.

The reason I believe this is that most of us are given to thinking in the short or near term. In the present case, the near term is hiring a new president, though the president may be around for a generation. Even if he or she serves only six or eight years, roughly the average tenure these days, that can be a longish period of time. Because the committee is likely thinking of the job at hand, its members may not see the outer distance; they want to choose a president and get on to the future. They will look for characteristics which, they believe, will solve the immediate problems which are 1) the hiring itself, 2) any specific (and possibly annoying) issues on campus, and 3) the advancement of their own concerns by finding a sympathetic candidate.

Thus, for example, one trustee may want a candidate who appears willing to robustly engage unions, another will want someone who seems committed to diversity, and a third will be interested in a candidate who has successfully raised funds for science buildings. Anyone can add to this list -- and it will be very long. But it will be a bill of particulars, a pork barrel.

These desires do not reflect what the long-term project is intended to accomplish -- which is the election of someone capable of leading the university for years and being able to handle the dozens of tasks and constituencies that confront any university president. These may include labor relations, affirmative action, and facilities, but details like these should be secondary in the search process to discovering and understanding the character, temperament, values, vision and personality of the candidates.

One can quite reasonably imagine a candidate from a private institution whose experiences and his/her response to questions from the search committee are exactly right for a land-grant university. Just as an individual who has been at a state institution could be perfect for a small liberal arts college. I myself, for example, have had my entire education and my entire career at independent institutions (Columbia, Yale, Harvard, Boston University, University of Hartford and George Washington University) but I am a great advocate of community colleges, which I believe to be authentically American and I often say that they are to higher education what jazz is to music. Moreover, I am a non-stop advocate for public institutions and the value they add to the nation and constantly refer to the observations I had as a boy and the good work done by the City University of New York and the State University of New York. You couldn’t grow up in Brooklyn without believing in the Dodgers and Brooklyn College. My professional path reflects the way things went and opportunities presented themselves not as ideological Johnny-one-note.

This is extremely difficult, given the amateur status of the members of the search team, the comparatively brief time most committees spend with even the short-listed candidates, and the ambition to get the job done with dispatch. Yet it seems to me that probing the character, temperament, and personality of the candidates, and especially the leading one, is the most rational (or perhaps the least irrational) avenue of approach. I was pleased to see this accomplished recently at my own institution when they looked for someone to follow me.

It puts Procrustes and Goldilocks to one side, by neither forcing a fit nor declaring the candidate is “just right.” The fit will be revealed over the course of years, not on the fly, and no one can conceivably be just right on all the particular institutional and personal issues. What is more important is the indefinable, but recognizable, quality of being what the institution needs now and, as far as anyone can see, for some period to come -- perhaps an innovator or a consolidator, maybe a tear-down specialist or a peace-maker, all depending. But we will find that by understanding the candidates’ substance and versatility, not their take on the issues of the day, which will be forgotten or different next year anyway.

What I propose is time-consuming, but cheap at the price of a little more work. It is much costlier to hire the wrong candidate and even more unthrifty to have to conduct a new search before its time. It is also the least irrational approach to a piece of work that sorely tests reason.


Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is president emeritus and professor of public service at George Washington University.

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