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Accelerating Searches for Research Administrators - Harris Search Associates

Accelerating Searches for Research Administrators

Sue Carter, Michigan State University & Richard Skinner, Harris Search Associates


            Research-intensive universities find themselves in an age of paradox. On the one hand, Jonathan Cole notes, “It Is the quality of the research produced, and the system that invests in and trains young people to be leading scientists and scholars, that distinguishes [research universities] and makes them the envy of the world.” Research, discovery, and invention fuel innovation in everything from protecting and enhancing the environment to health and medical care. These institutions are the centers of a knowledge-based global economy.

            But research universities are not spared the criticism or skepticism directed at higher education for soaring costs to students and their families. And those attitudes are revealed most graphically by the long-term trend of state governments reducing their financial support for public higher education.

            In such times, virtually all expenditures by universities need to be as efficient and effective as possible, and this includes the direct and indirect costs of seeking out leadership of the research enterprise such as provosts/academic vice presidents, vice presidents for research, and academic deans. No one yet questions either the importance of these leaders in sustaining a vital and productive research mission or the need to invest time, energy, and money in seeking these leaders out. But the investment ought to be subject to careful consideration and – where possible – made more productive, not only in terms of dollars spent but also for the opportunity costs entailed by these searches.

            Here, we offer a few modest suggestions about how searches can be accelerated and improved.


The Typical Search and Opportunity Costs

            Elsewhere (Carter and Skinner, 2014), we have estimated the direct costs of a search for a vice president or a dean at a research university to be in the range of $166,000-175,000. We arrived at this value on the basis of a sixteen-member search committee made up primarily of senior professors-researchers with representation by a smaller number of highly specialized research-support professionals such as compliance experts, technology transfer managers, and human subjects protection directors.

            We further proposed that the search be chaired by a vice president or dean and staffed by an executive assistant. 

            We included the fees and expenses paid to a professional search firm, as well as the logistical costs – travel, lodging, meals – of interviewing candidates who are semi-finalists and finalists for the position.

            Typically, searches of this nature entail 6-8 months and longer before a person is selected for the post and we estimate that the entire search committee devotes approximately 2 percent of annual work years to service on the body.

            Checks with officials on various campuses sustained our confidence in the range of costs for such searches, but we were also made aware of searches that have cost substantially more.  Moreover, our estimate does not include the costs of providing the new vice president or dean with the facilities, technology or graduate student support most such persons require to maintain their own research portfolios. These can be in excess of $1-2 million.

These are substantial investments by universities. But our estimates do not capture other, more indirect costs of searches for research administrative positions. “Opportunity costs” are more than an artifact of economists’ lingua franca: they are the value of the activities foregone by dint of senior researchers’ and specialized staff members’ service on search committees.  Calculation of such costs, as noted above, can be reasonably simple: they are the dollar value of that portion of a search committee member’s annual salary represented by whatever fraction of a work year is taken up by service.

Alternatively, one might estimate the opportunity cost of search committee membership by calculating the dollar value of annual sponsored research given up as a percentage of the work year for all members otherwise engaged in sponsored research.

However calculated, opportunity cost would seem to be an important consideration in organizing a search for new research administrative leadership. After all, service provided by senior research faculty members and specialized staff constitutes a major investment of time and talent. 

Reducing Costs by Accelerating Searches

The time and attention of faculty researchers and research support specialists are invaluable, so efforts that reduce the time required to bring a search to a successful conclusion are important. Both in organizing and managing a search, universities can realize some savings, so we address our suggestions to, first, presidents and provosts, typically the hiring authority and, second, to search committee chairs.


A.   Organizing for the Search – Suggestions for Presidents and Provosts

1)  Consider carefully and plan accordingly around the “window of time” available for mounting a search.

The academic year continues to hold sway, so the typical search for a vice president for research or a dean is launched during the fall term, continues into spring and is usually completed successfully before the summer hiatus of faculty arrives. The candidate selected for the post then takes up her/his duties with the start of a new academic year.

When, however, a vacancy arises due to the departure of the incumbent in December or January of the academic year. In this case, cleaving to the traditional cycle of searching and hiring means the institution must either wait for the next academic year to begin a search or accelerate the search process with a launch in January or February. The former means the position will be occupied by an interim/acting official, while the latter requires expediting the search process in order for it to conclude in May or June. Again, a self-consciousness of the opportunity costs of either choice needs to be considered very carefully.

2)    Recognize the “seasons” of an administrative position and incorporate fully this information in the charge to committee.

While position descriptions and fundamental roles per se do not change all that often, priorities for a new dean or vice president can and do. A university’s ambitious capital campaign or the need to devote time and effort to rejuvenating curricula, to cite two examples, change the kinds of candidates sought. A “position profile” for a search therefore needs to reflect the near-term priorities for that position and should go well beyond the standard position description to convey to prospective candidates what are near- and mid-term challenges and opportunities for the new hire.

Good position profiles are documents that provide essential information about the institution for which the search is undertaken.

Similarly, the unit or functions for which the position is responsible are described, including quantitative data on enrollments, graduation rates, degrees awarded, and funding secured to support research.

The foregoing elements of a position profile can be dismissed as “boilerplate” and not particularly revealing of an institution. In fact, candidates usually are interested in this information, if only to compare their current institution with a prospective new one. Such information can reveal institutional change that serves as a useful context within which to view the position for which a candidate is being recruited.

The position profile is not the same as a position description, and this is a distinction with a difference. The position description lays out the expectations for the role: duties, reporting, responsibilities and the like. The position profile is much more attuned to the person the university would like to have on board. The profile is a statement of the of the vision of the college or university, and also a commentary on what the institution would like to avoid, based on prior experience. If the previous dean was a strong administrator, but a mediocre fundraiser, and raising money is important, that belongs in the position profile. Hence, the focus is not on the position to be filled, but whether or not the applicant or candidate is the right person to assume the role.

Although seldom is an explanation for the position vacancy made explicit in a position profile, it ought to be stated unambiguously since the incumbent’s departure and the grounds for it often frame and influence the reasons for undertaking a search. Knowing something of the circumstances that created a vacancy and, hence, the need for a search can assist both the committee and candidates.

The profile should align the remaining steps in the search process such that the reasons for selecting out semi-finalists, for example, ought to be the bases on which candidates are evaluated and ultimately recommended for hiring.

And this means the profile must include but go beyond the more or less static conventional position description to describe the circumstances and dynamics candidates can expect to devote much of their first few years in the position. Design and construction of a major new facility, a likely plethora of faculty retirements, the redress of salary compression for persons in associate professor ranks – these and other conditions and challenges are not readily captured by a position description. A position profile, on the other hand, addresses these as among the most important tasks to be taken up by the new administrator.

In issuing the charge to a search committee, the president or provost must be clear on a number of points, including the process and procedures for conducting the search and providing recommendations (more following). But just as important is a clear depiction of what a strong candidate should “look” like and be able to do in the first 18 months or three years of her/his tenure as an administrator.

3)    Select a search committee chair who enjoys credibility with both senior leadership and research faculty and is committed strongly to diversity.

Few persons volunteer to chair a search committee for a new dean or a new vice president. Searches take up much time, involve complex negotiated logistics, and place theirchairs in the ambiguous position of trying to fulfill both the needs of the institution’s senior leadership and the expectations and aspirations of faculty whose organizational homes within the university are often quite different from other committee members.

Add to these challenges the need sometimes to incorporate the specialized knowledge of professional staff serving on a search committee and the lack of enthusiasm for chairing such an entity is understandable.

But chairs make a difference and often a large difference in the success of a search. There is a specific set of characteristics that a search committee chair optimally should have in order to be both efficient and effective. Because the academy is complex and nuanced, an individual with a number of years in residence – minimally six or seven – will be able to maneuver best and negotiate on behalf of the search committee and the administration. Longer time in place for the chair assures that roles are understood and relationships up and down are in place.

A chair with an open portfolio, one who moves fairly seamlessly through the various levels and membranes, is helpful. If she or he has had experience in academic governance, all the better. After all, search committees exemplify the concept of shared governance. A clear understanding of that notion and its historical importance is valuable.

In order to be an honest broker, the chair must be an active listener. A good guide for operation is the “80-20 Rule. ” In other words, the chair shouldlisten 80 percent of the time, and talk only 20 percent. Committees need some airtime, and the chair must allow for that, with the understanding that all members need space to speak, and that no small group of members should dominate deliberations.

The search committee chair serves as what one who was tasked to the role calls “the bridge” among a complex mix of stakeholders, including the university’s leadership; faculty and - in the case of a dean – departments, staff, students, alumni and advisory bodies; the search firm when one is employed.

As such, a chair must be an effective communicator, very well organized, an “honest broker” among what are sometimes competing interests, a facilitator able to engage the committee members in meaningful ways in the search, something of a taskmaster in terms of moving the search process along, and, ultimately, the university’s initial representative to the fortunate candidates who become finalists.

The effective chair is someone who brings to the role a commitment to diversity in general but a particularly keen determination to see the semi-finalist and finalist candidate pools representative of a full spectrum of gender, racial, and ethnic characteristics. Often, the search firm is tasked with insuring diversity, but a chair who insists on diversity carries much more weight with a search committee than any hired recruiter.

Does such a chair exist on every campus?  We think so, albeit, not in great numbers. Candidates for search committee chairs sometimes bring to bear life and career experiences different from and in addition to the academic life.

4)    Heed all protocols and procedures for determining the size, representation and composition of the search committee

Most research universities have in place established policies and procedures that guide the creation of search committees due, in part, to shared governance that has evolved over time. And because federal funds in the forms of grants and contracts are such prominent elements of these types of institutions, federal law and regulations also inform employment practices.

The desire to get a new dean or vice president “in place” by short-circuiting protocols is a bad fix – and for two reasons. Protocols are constructed so that all parties who are entitled under a shared governance to be at the table are precisely there. Further, and just as important, protocols afford the institution multiple views of the candidate. Because these people must report to a variety of constituencies, it is critical that there be some agreement that that will be the case. A dean who is too faculty-centered may not be effective in working with the provost, and a vice president of research dedicated chiefly to following the guidance of the president may not be able to function well with deans and faculty who report to her.

5)     “Work backwards” to establish a strict timetable for achieving not just recruitment but selection of qualified candidates from a richly diverse pool

Time is not an ally in searches for research and academic administrators.  As one wag observed, jugged hair – not an especially popular dish – may be one of the few things that improve with age. Yet because a search – however important the position may be – is not the first or even the second or third work priority of most of the people who serve on search committees, assembling groups of researchers and specialists to meet and work together becomes a logistical trial and typically extends the process out in time.

One of the best ways to accelerate a search is to think backwards from a future date when the formal appointment can take place through a myriad of essential “signoffs” by various groups and individuals. The planning then usually reveals the need to convene the committee quickly, for some time, and more frequently than was anticipated if the timetable is to be met.

What’s more, working backwards encourages the setting of key dates in the timeline when relevant parties are committed to being available and acting. This is especially important when presidents and provosts have to be engaged since the former administrators are usually scheduled months in advance and the latter available only for relatively short intervals. It is not an exaggeration to assert that missing the appointed date for a meeting with a president can incur delays of several weeks. Most search committees do not want to miss these deadlines.

The other consideration that can accelerate a search is to make clear that under-represented groups must be reflected in the pool of candidates throughout the search process, beginning from the very outset. “Building in” diversity as opposed to “adding on” diversity when semi-finalist and finalist pools emerge establishes the priority of ensuring the meaningful presence of persons of color, ethnicity and the like. This directs identification and recruitment efforts and increases the likelihood of these persons in semi-finalist and finalist pools in the first place, so that last-minute efforts to find and include under-represented groups are not required.

6)    Hire and use a search firm that is sufficiently experienced in recruiting research administrators to identify a small group, typically less than 20, well-qualified candidates

Research universities usually retain the services of a professional search firm when looking to hire a new vice president for research or an academic dean. Most such firms specialize in academic searches, but not necessarily on administrative searches in which research is a primary responsibility. The advantages of specialization include being familiar with some, perhaps many potential candidates from previous assignments.

In some instances, the number of candidates recruited for consideration is a priority, such that a firm is charged with identifying as many as 100+ individuals whose credentials are submitted and evaluated either with a first pass by the search firm or by the committee in part or whole.

More typical is for the search firm to focus on a smaller subset of persons sought out on the bases of the position profile and the firm’s knowledge of the prospective candidate pool of research administrators with the requisite requirements for the position.  This “pre-sorting” reduces the number of curriculum vita a committee is required to review[1]

Another value of a search firm is the ability to ask after personal and family considerations that are often more important in a candidate’s deliberations of whether or not to accept an administrative post than are professional ones. Law and regulations generally preclude universities from inquiring into matters such as marital/partner status and employment, race, ethnicity or gender, whereas search firms are able to do so. In doing so, they make it possible for a university to respond to personal needs for those persons offered the post. 

B.   Managing the Search – Suggestions for Search Committee Chairs

1)    Use meeting agenda and adhere to them and to time constraints for all meetings of committee

Ask anyone serving on a committee how important agenda are to making for meaningful participation, good use of time and the bringing of closure to questions, and most will concur that agenda are essential to effective committees, particularly those charged with searches. Among the functions agenda perform for meetings are –

§  reminding committee members of where they are in the search process and timeline, thereby enhancing consciousness of the need for progress in the search

§  focusing on specific outcomes of a given meeting in light of the overall search timeline and necessary steps

§  setting realistic but “hard” limits on starting and stopping times

§  establishing needed action and assign task to pertinent party(ies) to be completed by set date

§  respecting members’ time

2)    Look first internally for potential candidates, especially those serving as acting or interim holders of the position for which the search is intended

Substantial numbers of acting and interim incumbents and other internal persons express real doubt as to whether their candidacies will be given anything more than scant attention by their colleagues. Many prospective candidates therefore do not submit applications for administrative posts, considering it a waste of time and effort.

The committee and its search firm (if one is used) are empowered to seek out and encourage candidacy for persons qualified for research administrative positions and the limits for such effort should not be seen as beginning at the outskirts of campus. Accordingly, internal candidates ought to be afforded the same consideration as are external ones. Indeed, many research universities invest in leadership development either of their own provision or that of others, so encouraging and actively recruiting graduates of such development seems not only appropriate but wise.

3)       Make good use of technology, especially for interviewing semi-finalists

Only a few years ago, videoconferencing was viewed suspiciously by candidates and search committees alike, seen by the former as placing a premium on sound bites and appearing telegenic and diminishing the interpersonal skills of candidates to committees.

Today, as observed by Terry Curry, Vice Provost for Academic Human Resources at Michigan State, candidates’ comfort and facility with videoconferencing and other forms of communications technology are deemed important attributes of anyone seeking an administrative position at a university with activities underway around the globe. He and others involved in recruitment also point to the considerable cost savings achieved by videoconference interviews of semi-finalist candidates instead of face-to-face airport or on campus interviews.

What’s more, videoconferencing makes far fewer claims on the time of candidates and committees, by eliminating most of the logistical difficulties of scheduling and travel multiple candidates, thereby making it possible to interview more candidates.

Finally, the technology of videoconferencing is considerably simpler than was the case only a few years ago and its cost substantially lower.

4)    Develop and use questions that provide insight into candidates’ abilities to reflect on and talk about fundamental subjects of administering research activities

Oral examinations are the stuff of advanced degrees and the practice often carries over to searches and the interview format used with semi-finalists and finalists. Each candidate is asked the same set of questions as every other candidate interviewed for the position and their responses compared for their respective “goodness of fit.” The ability to respond to questions under pressure is an important attribute of most administrators, so the format makes good sense.

At the same time, search committees will benefit from the ability to pose questions well in advance of a videoconference or face-to-face interview, allow time for the candidates to reflect and develop brief responses, and then compare the depth and articulation of the answers. Surely a thoughtful, articulate exposition on key issues or questions is every bit as important for an administrator as is thinking and talking on one’s feet extemporaneously.

We therefore advocate on behalf of an interview format that includes both types of questions and answers. In addition to the content perspective afforded by such a format, it also serves to inform a committee about the candidate’s personal notion of what constitutes “brevity.”

5)    KISS – Forego elaborate means for evaluating and ranking candidates and focus on acceptability rather than attempt fine differentiations among candidates

Practice holds that search committees’ ultimate task is to bring forward the names of candidates they deem to have met the requirements and expectations of a position as set forth in the position profile, not rank the candidates based on quantitative criteria. The evaluation of candidates for administrative appointment remains more art than science, yet committees are known to spend considerable amounts of time and energy debating the meaning and importance of very small differences in values that are seldom products of valid or reliable quantification.


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