Recruiting Higher Education Executives: A Matter of Instinct or Information?

Placement of executives for colleges and universities has become more sophisticated through the years, but fundamental practices and principles still apply. For higher education executive search committees, there is no substitute for due diligence. The best hiring process is a compilation of qualitative and quantitative factors that result in a “narrative” about a candidate, says Dennis Barden, Senior Vice President at Witt/Kieffer. For the candidates themselves, honesty and enthusiasm, as well as “doing one’s homework” about employers, are still valued, he says.

Barden spoke recently with Rob Henry, Executive Director of Emerging Constituencies for the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), about the current state of executive recruitment and best practices to which academic job seekers and search committees must adhere. Barden has more than 20 years of experience in academic administration advancement, and thirteen years in executive recruitment. In recent years, Barden has seen search committees, boards, and hiring officials become more “nuanced” in their understanding of how to work best with executive recruiters, and he’s seen universities and colleges use more sophisticated tools such as psychometric assessments to lower the risks of hiring the wrong candidate.

Dennis Barden

Despite such progress, higher education searches are still often flawed, Barden says. Frequently, search committees are myopic—thinking too narrowly about which type of candidate might work for an organization—or guilty of what Barden refers to as “sector discrimination.” “You see this all the time,” he says. “Particularly as they work for institutions with higher and higher reputations that are considered to have greater and greater prestige, they come to believe that only people who are already serving a like institution could possibly work for them in their job.”

Sector discrimination is often at play between four-year institutions and community colleges. “The fact of the matter is, those things have almost nothing to do with job preparation or professionalism,” Barden says. “They simply have to do with bias.”

Search Committees: Tempting Fate?

Another mistake that search committees make is an overreliance on either quantifiable evidence or on instinct. “Hiring is always about both,” says Barden. “You can have all the data in the world, but if your instincts and gut tell you it’s a bad fit, you should probably be listening to that. And the opposite is also true: no matter what your gut tells you about someone, if they don’t have the data to back it up, you’re really tempting fate.”

Candidates have a few areas in which they can improve as well, says Barden. Namely, they must take job opportunities seriously and thoroughly prepare for the interview process. “You really need to have done your homework,” Barden says. “You need to know the institution as intimately as you can; you need to know the data; you need to have a sense of what they’re about; and you need to be able to answer questions with some specificity.”

They also need to be able to ask the right questions, he says. “The moment is going to come in the interview when you’re going to be asked, ‘Do you have questions for us?’ And the questions that you ask are part of presenting yourself in the interview.”

For more on the challenges of the higher education search process, read the full interview between Henry and Barden or listen to the podcast.

By Paul Thomas, Witt/Kieffer Senior Writer (@PaulWThomas)

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