Getting Personal in the Search for Campus Leaders - The Chronicle of Higher Education

By Richard A. Skinner JANUARY 29, 2017  

Influenced by moral and legal considerations as well as student pressure, many, perhaps most, college governing boards and presidents are increasingly emphasizing diversity within their institutions. But the changing demographics of student enrollment are also important in determining who will emerge as the next generation of academic leaders.

Susan Whealler Johnston, of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, writes that the Census Bureau "has told us that racial and ethnic minorities will become the majority population in the country around 2050. For many communities, that switch has already occurred. If boards are going to continue to add value to the institutions they serve, they, like the presidents and chancellors, need to be able to address the needs of a changing student population."

In order to meet those changing needs, boards and presidents often instruct search committees, made up mostly of senior and junior professors, to identify well-qualified candidates who are also members of groups discriminated against and underrepresented within their respective institutions and higher education in general. Indeed, some colleges require the inclusion of persons of different color, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, or veteran status in semifinalist or finalist pools, or require that they be added before the process can continue.

With these sorts of prescriptions in place, why do searches for academic administrators usually end up not hiring underrepresented people?

One reason is that faculty members, who make up the majority of search-committee members, are trained and work in a meritocracy in which what count toward qualification are performance and achievement. A person’s race and gender, for example, are second-order considerations. Academic credentials as detailed in curriculum vitae carry great weight in the committee’s assessment and factor heavily in a candidate-by-candidate review that unfolds in the process of determining whom to recommend for closer consideration.

Efforts to remedy what are — in the case of race — centuries of discrimination are barely 50 years old and still have not yet had the full impact desired. People who possess the academic credentials sufficient to gain consideration for an administrative appointment, and whose hiring could enhance diversity, are still underrepresented among department chairs and associate deans, the positions from which deans and provosts usually gain the administrative experience called for in searches.

Thus it is that search committees struggle too often to identify and recommend candidates whose recruitment would enhance institutional diversity. With no intended malice, diversity becomes a lower-order consideration behind academic credentials and administrative experience. As a result, colleges are deprived of the service of people whose personal characteristics and life experiences could contribute not only to diversity but also to the expanded perspective sorely needed by even the most progressive college.

If this problem is to be remedied, diversity cannot be an unintended result emerging from searches for academic administrators. If diversity is more than compensation for historical wrongs and is, instead, a vital resource that contributes to the quality of education, scholarship, and a sense of community, then searches for deans and provosts must place a high priority on seeking out and recruiting people whose personal attributes add a dimension to their candidacy.

The candidate who served in the military burnishes his candidacy by dint of that service and the attendant experience, both of which are known to be powerful but which fewer and fewer citizens and students have. The American woman of color brings with her candidacy perspectives that are distinctive and particular to being a female in a society that is neither colorblind nor purged of misogyny. The man disabled at birth is seen as a candidate whose degrees and accomplishments are enriched by the experience of navigating a world seldom designed to accommodate disabilities.

If diversity is an institutional strength comparable in importance to what biological diversity is to an environment, it will not come about through happenstance or the coincidental results of autonomous searches within a college. Governing boards and presidents must do more to advance diversity than encourage search committees to seek out candidates from underrepresented groups and then make no further efforts when no such candidates emerge as finalists. They must be clear that diversity is, in fact and not just in words, an asset that comes about by design and effort.

Search firms, too, have a role in enhancing diversity. They must make diversity a priority in the pools of candidates put forward to search committees and then advocate for candidates who have attributes and experiences that contribute to institutional diversity.

For diversity to become a truly positive attribute of an academic institution, it must be built into searches for deans and provosts and not added on at the end. It may be possible for diversity to come about solely by chance and the good intentions of search committees that embrace it as a strength of the academic enterprise, but that will very likely be the exception and not the rule.

America remains a society in which differences among its citizens — race, gender, age — continue to be challenges instead of strengths, points of contention rather than convergence. If that is to change, diversity must be advanced through the institutions — such as colleges and universities — we rely upon to help perfect our imperfect union. And even as large as such institutions are and as immune as they may seem to efforts to change them, they do, in fact, change. They change best as a result of choice.


Richard A. Skinner is a senior consultant at Harris Search Associates.


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