Traditionally, presidential search finalist candidates have appeared in public before the community of the hiring institution. This methodology facilitates community engagement and comfort with the search process. Positive effects of this approach include improved community acceptance of the candidate of choice.
Unfortunately, in recent years candidates – especially those in very senior positions dealing with high-stakes issues such as principal gift fundraising or delicate negotiations with accreditors – have become unwilling to subject themselves to such public scrutiny. Candidates’ concerns are not unfounded. Although this was seldom, if ever, the case historically, final candidates now face sanctions at their home institutions for considering new opportunities. Those sanctions range from simple doubts about loyalty to demotion and even to outright dismissal. There are multiple stories in higher education trade publications and in the mainstream press about individuals being fired when it became known that they had interviewed for another job. As a result of the probability of such sanctions, many senior leaders choose not to take the risk of participating in searches unless there is a guarantee of confidentiality throughout the entire process and in perpetuity. Because a sufficient number of institutions will accommodate that need, institutions that will not are at a significant disadvantage in the recruitment of experienced leaders.
In an effort to optimize the value of community engagement and yet still recruit the most robust possible pool of candidates, many institutions now conduct their final interview with what is called the “Hybrid Approach.” In this methodology, the various constituencies of the institution – typically the faculty, staff, students and alumni, with others as appropriate to the institution's construct and culture – are represented by a select number of their peers in vetting the final candidates and providing feedback to the board. These representatives, who join and add to each constituency's representatives on the search committee in this undertaking, typically execute some type of confidentiality agreement committing to keep the identities of the candidates and the content of their feedback completely confidential. The methodology for selecting these additional representatives varies by institution and circumstance, but most typical would be some sort of election or the involvement of an already-elected group of representatives, such as the Faculty Senate, National Alumni Board, or officers of Student Government.
Search committees and boards, then, are faced with a very difficult decision: use the traditional methodology and limit the search to candidates willing to take the risk of "going public" in the final round of interviews, or compromise to a less inclusive process using the Hybrid Approach to leave open the possibility of considering candidates who might not otherwise apply. UD’s Presidential Search Committee has begun to discuss this dilemma. At this point, we believe it is highly likely that we will need to utilize the Hybrid Approach to ensure that we do not limit the pool of candidates for the position. Sitting presidents or provosts currently employed by another university will likely be interested in the opening at UD. And as a Search Committee, we are determined to serve the interest of the UD community by ensuring we see the best possible pool of applicants. The Search Committee is currently discussing the options and reviewing best practices for selection of the additional representatives so that we are prepared in the event our candidate pool necessitates the hybrid methodology.
How will our representatives be chosen?
This is still under discussion but will likely either involve a special election or bring the previously elected/appointed representatives of the constituencies into play – the Faculty Senate, the National Alumni Board, officers of the various Student Government organizations, etc.
There would still be a lot of people involved. Won't there be leaks?
The Search Committee has a responsibility to ensure the candidate’s privacy is as well-protected as possible. We must rely on our constituencies to live our UD values and honor their commitments to confidentiality. Our expectation is that representatives will understand what is potentially at stake for the candidates, will live up to their covenants, and will not share information. Most importantly, our consultants at Witt/Kieffer tell us that candidates with higher education backgrounds are familiar with the traditional methodology and understand that the Hybrid Approach is a compromise accommodation. They are almost invariably willing to take that much of a chance, the theory being that 50 people have a higher likelihood of keeping a secret than 500 people.
What changed to make this necessary?
There are several factors, but the two most important are likely 1) the immediate availability of information on the internet and 2) the size of the financial transactions in which leaders are typically involved. There used to be local news, but now everything can be known everywhere in real time. Candidates are no longer able to show up someplace without their home institutions knowing about it. Also, higher education leaders are now often engaged in negotiations – especially principal gifts or sophisticated financial transactions subject to bond ratings, etc. – that can be severely compromised by a lack of faith in that leader's commitment to his or her current institution.
Shouldn't someone who wants to be our President be willing to take the chance and
show up nonetheless?
Any candidate will come into this search knowing that they have competition. A humble person will recognize there is a chance that he or she will interview and not be offered the position. Asking candidates to risk their current livelihood or to subject their families to upheaval with no guarantee may deter even the most dedicated individual. Perhaps there will be applicants who come from low-risk positions and would be willing to participate in a fully open search. People in jeopardy, however, not only will not show up for an open public visit but will not even apply – will not even investigate the institution and the opportunity – if there is no possibility of doing so in confidence.
Does it work?
Our consultants at Witt/Kieffer have undertaken this methodology with great success for several years. In fact, it is now the predominant approach in their searches for private institutions.