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Search Consultants and the Presidency


Jean Dowdall


One of the most fascinating findings in the new ACE report on college and university presidents is the changes in the use of presidential search consultants: in 1998, 38 percent of presidents reported that their selection involved a search consultant; in the 2006 survey, that number ballooned to 49 percent; in 2011 it grew to 56 percent. A review of the ads placed in The Chronicle of Higher Education during 2011 found that, of presidential searches in four-year institutions of all types, approximately 90 percent listed a consultant supporting the search. As a consultant myself, I can offer several observations about the reasons that search consultants are so widely used.

First, the office of the presidency is perceived to be more difficult, demanding, and complex than it once was. If the board doesn’t make a good choice, the institution may be weakened. And, perhaps because of this, presidential tenure is shorter, down from 8.5 years to 6.5 years. Boards may feel a consultant is more likely to find candidates who will have longer-term success (and if the president leaves in a short time, the consultant may redo the search without additional fees).

The search process itself is more complex than it used to be. For example, many constituencies want an active role in the search process, while candidates almost always prefer confidentiality. Consultants can try to help strike a balance between these kinds of competing preferences and priorities. There are other complexities, too. The relationships between candidates and institutions can be more effectively managed by an experienced outsider. In some institutions, the search process is highly structured, with identical treatment of all candidates. In others, there is more flexibility, with board members, committees, and candidates seeking to develop and test their relationships. Committees in the latter situation grapple with questions of equity, but a consultant who has worked with different approaches can help address benefits and risks of each.

These days, trustees may want to seek candidates from outside academe. The academic path (from which 41 percent of presidents come) may not be as fruitful in the future, since only 30 percent of chief academic officers aspire to a presidency. Looking outside higher education for a president requires carefully evaluating a candidate’s readiness to move into a new and different culture. Experienced consultants may be able to identify nontraditional candidates and make that appraisal, perhaps using some of the leadership assessment tools available through search consultants or other firms.

Finally, the diversification in leadership that many institutions seek doesn’t happen on its own. Women and people of color who are ready for a presidency are bombarded with recruiting calls, and many say they feel used as “tokens.” A search consultant can identify diverse candidates, building on mutually respectful relationships they have cultivated over the years that encourage candidates to explore an opportunity.

For these reasons, boards increasingly ask consultants to assist with presidential searches. And many boards charge their consultants with seeking candidates who are women or people of color. But in the past five years, the percent of presidents who are women has risen only from 23-26 percent, while the percent of presidents who are racial or ethnic minorities declined slightly, from 14 percent in 2006 to 13 percent in 2011.

Why is it that efforts to diversify the presidency have not yielded the results one might hope for? Trustee perceptions of women and people of color doubtless shape the process. The board of an institution whose local or state political environment is characterized by white-male cronyism or a “good-old-boy” culture may feel that a Caucasian man can better represent its interests. An institution facing severe financial challenges may somehow expect that a man will have greater financial management sophistication. These pre-judgments are familiar.

In addition, the readiness of potential candidates is a significant barrier to diversification. Women and people of color who feel they have been overlooked in presidential searches may object to this characterization, but many consultants find that building diverse candidate pools is challenging. We need more well-prepared diverse candidates who are ready to step into a presidency.

As a search committee reviews the credentials of diverse candidates, different career paths and academic specialties may be evaluated differently. Leaders with background in the sciences—where grant revenues and associated institutional stature are higher—may be more attractive than those with backgrounds in other fields. Men have historically been better represented in the sciences. Unusual patterns of job changes or hiatuses in work are probably more likely to be seen in women’s credentials than in men’s, and that may raise concerns for trustees.

Institutional priorities change over time, and diversity may not be as high a priority as it once was. Diversification of the presidency may have been pushed down the agenda by other important concerns that seem more compelling, like economic crisis, public perceptions of higher education, and athletics.

Consultants and boards of trustees clearly have developed a partnership in the very important endeavor of selecting presidents. The priorities of trustees drive the responsibilities of their search consultants. Renewed trustee commitment to diversity, continued professional development of candidates, and the commitment of search consultants will bring us closer to fully diversified leadership ranks in American higher education.


Jean Dowdall is senior vice president of the executive search firm Witt/Kieffer, based in Oak Brook, IL.