Faculty: Secrecy hampers searches

One thing executive search firms do well is keep secrets, university proponents say.

Outside consultants can approach sitting administrators or coaches at other schools and coordinate confidential interviews without raising too many alarm bells on campus.

But some faculty question whether the secrecy of high-level searches is appropriate for public universities, and whether it leads to the best candidates.

Case in point: the 2010 search that resulted in the hiring of UI President Michael Hogan, who resigned under fire after 20 months on the job. The UI Board of Trustees hired Isaacson, Miller to lead the search, and the consultants imposed strict confidentiality measures, according to search committee members.

UI Professor May Berenbaum, who was vice chairwoman of the committee, believes it hampered the panel's ability to vet applicants for the job.

The search firm had the responsibility for generating the initial list of candidates — a "Herculean challenge" given the post-Category I period, she said. Former UI President Stanley Ikenberry played a key role because of his myriad contacts in higher education, she said.

Berenbaum said she had no direct dealings with Michael Baer, the lead search consultant from Isaacson, Miller. That was left to the committee's chairwoman, Trustee Pamela Strobel.

Search committee members weren't given any paper copies of candidates' bios and were instructed not to even download the information, in order to protect their identities, she said. They also weren't allowed to talk to colleagues about the candidates, Berenbaum said.

During the interviews in Chicago, "we were going through kitchens and underground passageways so people wouldn't spot candidates," Berenbaum said. "It's like nothing I've experienced before."

"I was quite mystified by the extreme secrecy. It's not like the Manhattan Project. We were picking a president; we weren't designing a nuclear bomb," Berenbaum said.

Baer did not respond to interview requests from The News-Gazette.

Board of Trustees Chairman Chris Kennedy said search consultants are "critical" in recruiting candidates for senior administrative positions, where privacy is a huge concern.

It's fairly routine for search firms to contact top university administrators about job openings, either for recommendations or to recruit them personally, he said. But if Kennedy calls a sitting chancellor or president during a UI presidential search, "everybody knows what I'm up to," he said.

"The truth is that several of the finalists dropped out in that process because they were scared of the rumor mill," Kennedy said. "That happened in both the chancellor's and president's searches."

He said the search firm's detailed notes from interviews with Hogan's prior employers and co-workers "helped to tip the balance in his favor. We couldn't have conducted those interviews" without information leaking out, Kennedy said.

Berenbaum said she doesn't know enough about the recruiting climate to know whether the secrecy was justified but called it "a peculiar situation."

"I just found it, after three decades here at a public university, odd," she said.

Added UI Professor Bill Sullivan, "We're a public institution. These are public dollars, and search firms and the people who feed at the trough of this increasingly lucrative business say they want to get the best people to apply and it will scare people away (if names are revealed). If people are scared, then they are not quality candidates."

'Secret searches very risky'

Universities don't necessarily need open searches at the early stages, but it doesn't hurt candidates' ability to function at their own school for people to know they're being considered for a job elsewhere, argued UI Professor Emeritus Cary Nelson, who is president of the American Association of University Professors.

"It proves that you're wanted; it proves that there's potential respect for you elsewhere," Nelson said.

He said a lesson from Hogan's resignation is that "radically secret searches are very risky."

"I knew nothing about Hogan accepting this job until it was announced on campus," Nelson said. "In less than 24 hours after it was announced, I had talked with several faculty members at the University of Connecticut who basically said, 'What's wrong with you people?'"

UConn faculty told Nelson that Hogan had faced similar management challenges there, criticizing his style as "top-down" rather than consultative. And they said Lisa Troyer — Hogan's former chief of staff at both UConn and the UI until she resigned while under internal investigation in January — had alienated faculty there by assuming "tremendous authority that had not been granted to her," Nelson said.

"One has to ask what kind of calling and checking the search committee did, or the search firm," Nelson said.

Searches have increasingly been "shrouded in the darkness of a back room someplace," Sullivan said, with high-powered people from New York or Washington giving advice about candidates.

"I think it's an unhealthy process," Sullivan said. "The person who wins these jobs needs to win the dedication and commitment of the faculty. If not, they start on shaky ground."

Sullivan points to the two recent vice chancellor searches on campus, in which Chancellor Phyllis Wise decided to have finalists attend public forums, as a positive change.

In the case of athletic searches, if university officials prefer confidentiality when approaching potential coaches about jobs, they should use university lawyers because "they're already on payroll," said state Rep. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, who recently introduced a bill to limit the use of search consultants by universities.

Gretchen Bataille, senior vice president at the American Council on Education, said it's a balancing act.

Search firms can better protect candidates' identities during the early stages, when they'd like to remain confidential. The search firm coordinates who will call references and others for background checks on candidates, she said.

On the other hand, if only the board knows the candidates' identities, "you won't get opinions from faculty, students and staff, or some questions won't be asked," she said. "Search firms can bring good candidates, but when you want ideal candidates, sometimes the absence of a broad-based search can cause you to hire the wrong person."

Faculty involvement

Longtime UI Chicago Professor Don Chambers said he has noticed a marked increase in the use of search firms in the last 15 years and, as a result, the search committee's work has changed.

"There's a much greater reliance on search firms than ever before, almost to the fact that we as a search group can't solicit names. (The firms) solicit names; we get lists from them; we shorten the list, and ultimately interview," Chambers said.

In the UI president's search, the committee did not recommend Hogan or any other candidate, or even produce a rank order, Berenbaum said. The committee was asked only to produce a short list of qualified candidates for the board. The committee interviewed Hogan and reviewed materials provided by the search firm, she said.

The interactions between search firms and committees can vary, said Bataille, who has both been a candidate and run searches as a former university president. In some cases, the search consultant works closely with the faculty committee, taking advice on candidates and making reference calls jointly. Other search firms are "much more closed," she said, vetting the candidates, doing the background checks and presenting information to the search committee. Sometimes, the campus or board chairman has to intervene and say "I want more participation," Bataille said.

UI Professor Douglas Beck, who chaired the chancellor's search committee last year, said consultants have added professionalism to searches, which used to be more of a word-of-mouth process. And they are helpful in making initial contacts with candidates, coordinating confidential interviews and advising about "unwritten rules" in academic searches.

But he also said their work is "of limited value."

"You have to understand what their role can be. In my view, a search firm can't do the whole job," Beck said.

Search firms have contacts in higher education, but faculty on the search committees typically have more extensive contacts through academic circles, he said.

Beck said he knows several chancellors and presidents who were good sources of information in the search that led to the hiring of Phyllis Wise. They talked to him as a colleague, and "that was different from the kind of conversation a search firm might have with them."

John Curtis, the AAUP's director of research and policy, said restrictions placed on search committee members, such as confidentiality agreements, can hamper the process and marginalize faculty voices.

"They really have a hard time serving as representatives of their faculty, because theoretically they're not allowed to discuss the candidate with their fellow faculty members," said Curtis, whose organization advocates for academic freedom, faculty unions and shared governance.

"Our concern is that the more this is run as a consultant-driven operation, and faculty's voice in the decision-making is marginalized, the more it reflects an end to that kind of shared governance."

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Lostinspace wrote on May 13, 2012 at 2:05 pm

This is no surprise, of course.  Board/administration contempt for the faculty (and the students they teach), growing distance between administration and faculty.  Let's hope things will change under the new administration.