Tuesday, November 09, 2010

 

When Presidents’ Eyes Wander

In searches at senior administrative levels, such as presidents and chancellors, it’s common practice to release the names of finalists to the local newspaper while the search is in process. In the age of the internet, even an out-of-state search can become common local knowledge in nanoseconds.

Since the most common job for new presidents is a previous presidency -- that can’t last forever, but it’s true now -- it’s not uncommon for a sitting President of college X to be revealed as a candidate for the presidency of college Y.

This causes ripples at college X.

It’s one thing if the president actually gets the job. She leaves, college X adjusts, and life goes on.

But when the president doesn’t get the job, and her unsuccessful candidacy has become common knowledge on the home campus, things can get awkward.

The rumors start to swirl. Why is she looking? What’s the scoop? Is she looking elsewhere too? (Answer: probably.) What will happen if she leaves in three months? Six months? A year? What if a new person cleans house? Which internal faction will win?

It can be remarkably unsettling. And that can do real damage.

Administrations usually evolve in a pattern of punctuated equilibrium. There’s relative calm for a while, then a huge wave of change, then relative calm again. Presidential change is usually a catalyst for a huge wave. Some of that wave will be initiated by the new president, since many of them like to start by bringing in their own people. (I’m not a fan of that strategy, though I’ll admit some bias there.) Some of it will happen when people leave preemptively, reacting to the writing on the wall. And some of it will happen when people start jockeying for position, perceiving the incumbent as a lame duck.

I don’t know an effective way around this. As long as search finalists are public knowledge, people will make of that knowledge what they will.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen someone handle that kind of disclosure gracefully? Is there a way for a president to regain local relevance after losing out on a search that the campus discovered?

Comments:
"The rumors start to swirl. Why is she looking? What’s the scoop? Is she looking elsewhere too? (Answer: probably.) What will happen if she leaves in three months? Six months? A year? What if a new person cleans house? Which internal faction will win?"

I'm sure this is one way that it could go, but all I can say is that we know our president interviewed someplace else last year, and beyond a "oh, God, I hope when he ultimately does leave that we get somebody decent!" I haven't heard much in the way of swirling rumors. The thing is, though, that he's going to leave at some point soon anyway - whether for another university or for retirement - and while he has his critics, for the most part people think that he's done a good job in the many years he's been our president.

So... um... yeah, I just don't see that this is *necessarily* as big a deal as you make it seem - or at least it doesn't have to be in some sort of universal way. If your campus is generally sane and generally a place where people understand that sometimes people leave for other jobs, just like in the real world, then seriously: there won't necessarily be that much drama over such news. People are really busy with other much more immediate stuff, after all.
 
The alternative--keeping presidential finalists' names secret--can also have some unintended consequences.

Background: Our current community college president has been an absolute disaster. He's on his way out, but the faculty and community members had to elect two new members to our Board of Trustees who'll do what's necessary.

When this president was hired, the names of the three finalists for the position were kept secret. It was only after he was chosen that we could find out about his background. A quick Google search revealed that everyone at his previous place of employment knew he was a finalist for the job, but no one on our campus knew anything. Some secret.

It turned out that we hired someone with only K - 12 experience and who had no background working in a collective barganing environment or with shared governance. He was also on shakey ground in the place where he'd been working.

Over the years, I've learned that one of the most important things that needs to be done before a high-level administrator is hired is a campus visitation. Hiring teams need to talk to everyone--faculty, classified staff, other administrators, students--to learn about potential new hires.

If this is done, then it's clearly impossible to keep someone's job search a secret. If it's not done, then you're buying a pig in a poke. Chances are, you'll get an actual pig.

--Philip
 
It turned out that we hired someone with only K - 12 experience and who had no background working in a collective barganing environment or with shared governance. He was also on shakey ground in the place where he'd been working.

The hiring committee should have checked that. If they didn't, your campus has more problems than just a bad president.
 
You becha, Anonymous 8:32.

A couple of related problems: I don't know about other presidential search committees, but ours have always been huge. Twenty-some members including students and community members representing various interests and agendas, some open and some hidden, means that the concerns of a few faculty members are going to be watered down--even though it's faculty who'll be the most affected, in the long term, by the new president.

We also use consultants to head up search committees, and it's my understanding that these very same consultant groups are hired by ambitious administrators to help them find presedintial jobs. So there may be a clear conflict of interest.

But Dean Dad's topic is whether it's a good idea to keep confidential the identity of people who are applying for the position of college president.

Since I know from experience that choosing a new president should never be done without a visit to candidates' places of employment, my response is a simple "no."

--Philip
 
When we heard that another institution with a similar mission to ours was about to start a presidential search, we set about dropping a flea in the ears of their nominating committee suggesting that OUR president might be a good fit. They have her now, and we are in the midst of a search for a replacement. Who will really have to be better. For us.
 
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