Centralized versus Decentralized Talent Recruitment in Research Universities

Of late, we have been privy to debates within universities of the merits and shortcomings of centralized versus decentralized approaches to recruiting faculty, professional staff and senior leaders.   The debates are about strategies and tactics, but they share common ground.  Demographic trends portend a potentially large-scale exodus of faculty, staff and administrators over the next few years as Baby Boomers retire and the consequent need arises to recruit their successors. 

Moreover, recent trends foretell less replacement and more reallocation of positions, as well as different terms of employment for those who are hired.  Fewer professors today are hired into tenure-track positions. Contracted workers and firms perform more and more services carried out by employees in the past.  Administrators spend more time managing contractors than actual employees of the university.

In addition, the scope of recruitment efforts in research universities will likely become more global as competition for the best talent transcends national borders and as more institutions set up operations outside the United States.

In light of the stakes involved for major research universities, the debate over centralized versus decentralized recruitment of talent is more than a trifling organizational choice.  If the differentiation among universities comes down to which can attract the best talent – students, staff, professors, researchers and administrators, then the choice of methods by which to carry out recruitment and the advantage of one over another approach are high-stakes matters.

The decentralized model conforms to the formal and informal organization of most large research universities.  These institutions’ budgets as well as authority for spending are allocated to deans of colleges and schools and these often devolve to heads of departments and directors of centers and institutions.  Harvard’s decentralized approach became so institutionalized that the axiom “every tub on its own bottom” gained acronym status as “ETOB.”

Stephanie Riegle, chief of staff in the Office of the Provost at the University of Michigan, relates that “our office administers the dean searches, but once the dean has been hired, he/she is responsible for his/her unit, including hiring of faculty and staff.  We are quite decentralized.”

The rationale for such an approach varies, but content expertise in recruitment, evaluation and hiring of professors, professionals and technical staff trumps other considerations and typically defaults to collective, committee decisions in the spirit of shared governance.   Even if the opportunity costs of decentralized units conducting recruitment are substantial (and having a Nobel Laureate or a member of the National Academy of Engineering participate in faculty and even staff interviews is a large investment of time and talent), the sort of knowledge required to assess the strengths of candidates is deemed to be essential.

A centralized approach is seen as having several advantages for identifying and recruiting talent, including –

• consistent practices and information about key issues such as performance evaluations, benefits, means for redress and the institutional importance of a diverse organization;

• reduced costs by avoiding redundancies;

• capacity to convey important institutional values and priorities to candidates;

• achieve efficiencies and lower costs by contracting with search firms for multiple assignments or long-term retainers or main; and

• lends itself to strategic considerations for institution-wide talent recruitment and development.

But a centralized model may also rankle what are long-established and cherished prerogatives of academic colleges and schools.

As an alternative, Kevin Wheeler has evoked the writing of management guru Charles Handy to make the case for a “federal” model for recruitment involving a central unit that “develops an overall strategy for recruiting, writes procedures for everyone to follow, tracks legal compliance, educates and supports individual recruiters [who are attached to units within the organization], and collects and reports metrics” to University leadership.

The key decision is resolution of what the central function actually is, such as a single online system for recruiting and consolidating metrics, but leaves the units with control over the recruiting.

Our sense is that many universities recruit talent based on models that have evolved with practice rather than been designed and planned.  Whatever those models’ virtues or shortcomings, most constituents have grown used to and are comfortable with them.  And by most accounts, the models work reasonably well.  Rarely are the costs – direct and opportunity ones – factored in to gauge the benefits over costs.

It may well be that no one model or approach will satisfy the needs of all or most research universities.  These are, after all, more akin to what March and Cohen first argued in the mid-1970s were “organized anarchies” – that seem to resist standardization.  But the importance of talent has never been greater, so success in finding and recruiting the best minds is critical to the institutions’ futures.




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