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?