Leadership search in higher education continues to be challenging in the aftermath of COVID-19 as institutions struggle to hire and retain top academic leaders.
According to a 2023 survey of 446 college leaders in The Chronicle of Higher Education, 84% of respondents reported that hiring in academic administration roles has been problematic, whereas 13% reported it as a serious problem.
Beyond these hiring and retention challenges, institutions also face the threat of appointing a misaligned candidate. From damaging institutions’ reputations to poor performance or decision-making, the detrimental effects of hiring someone who isn’t well-suited to the role can have a lasting impact.
Having a trained and prepared Search Committee is a key element in avoiding such mistakes and making outstanding hires.
An effective Search Committee consists of a committed Search Chair and motivated Committee members who work toward the college’s or university’s shared goal of recruiting, evaluating, and appointing the most qualified and appropriate candidates for leadership positions. Each of the Committee members and the Search Chair must come together with their own perspectives and shared insights to represent the institution as a whole in the decision-making process. The outcome is an ideal appointee chosen through a process of careful consideration that is mindful of shared governance.
In the following article, we’ll outline what makes an effective Search Committee, including their responsibilities and their importance, as well as common pitfalls and best practices.
For complete details on the executive search process and a checklist to prepare your Search Committee, download AGB Search’s ‘Guide to a Successful Executive Search for Provosts and Deans.’
It is imperative that Search Committee members understand their role and responsibilities. Search Committees are generally responsible for:
Successful searches in higher education are both inclusive and timely. Institutions appoint Search Committees to embody inclusivity, diversity, and a transparent approach to hiring. They help the hiring authority come to an informed decision that is made with a broader perspective from diverse stakeholders. They also work collectively to ensure that institutional requirements, values, and ethical standards are foundational to the search.
From AGB Search’s work in leadership searches in higher education, we’ve seen some Search Committees work in less-than-optimal ways. Often, Search Committees don’t have proper support and training, leading them to encounter issues that can impede and derail the search process and making it difficult for the Committee, Chair, and hiring authority to come to a decision.
Four common pitfalls of Search Committees are:
From Search Committee formation and training to advertising, application review, interviews, campus visits, negotiation, evaluation, and onboarding, a leadership search is a multi-step process that takes time. The Search Committee needs to perform each step thoroughly while maintaining transparency, fairness, and a commitment to diversity and inclusivity. This often takes much longer than the institution anticipated, and without a realistic timeline and proper project management, the search timeline can be delayed. Prolonged searches can:
The time to complete the search process depends on conducting the search using internal resources (DIY) vs. working with a search firm. Self-conducted searches usually take about 6-8 months to complete. On the contrary, a search firm will typically conduct a search in 4-5 months, from accepting applications to the final selection.
It is critical for the members of the Search Committee to be committed to the search process to make it a success. Lack of capacity can lead to an inefficient search, conflict between members, delayed decision-making, distraction from the goals, and an unsuccessful search. A Search Chair and/or Committee members may be stretched too thin and unable or unwilling to reprioritize their work. For example, in self-conducted searches, a Search Chair will often spend over 100 hours on their search duties. This is why the selection of the right Committee members and the procurement of institutional support are essential to the search process.
A biased Search Committee diverts itself from the institutional goals, limits the institution’s ability to conduct a fair search, and hampers the reputation of the institution in the long run. On the contrary, a diverse and inclusive search helps create a broader applicant pool, mitigates bias, helps the board or hiring authority make informed decisions with a broader perspective, and encourages creativity and innovation. Bias should be addressed during training to ensure the selection process is fair and transparent and the institution can attract top talent in support of academic excellence.
Sometimes, the Search Committee is unable to safeguard the confidentiality of the search process. Inadequate data security and inadvertent or intentional leaks are some of the reasons the confidentiality of the process and/or of the candidates is compromised. Compromised searches often fail, leading to reputational harm to the institution, and they can negatively impact future searches, as well. Institutions must appoint trusted members to the Committee, train them on confidentiality requirements, and maintain necessary protocols to mitigate breaches of confidentiality to conduct reputable searches.
Depending on the type of search, the governing board or hiring authority forms the Search Committee and names a Search Chair. Convening the Committee is the first step in recruiting exceptional talent that aligns with the institution’s goals, values, and culture. Below are some key tips for creating effective Search Committees.
The size of the Search Committee is an important factor in conducting a successful search. Having too many members on the Search Committee invites an overwhelming number of opinions, which makes it difficult to form a consensus. On the contrary, a Committee with too few members is not representative of the stakeholders, may risk bias due to a smaller number of perspectives, and may delay the search if members must miss meetings due to illness or other commitments.
The size of the Search Committee should be representative but not so large that it’s difficult to schedule meetings. For a Dean search, the focus should be on including well-regarded representatives from a few departments. For a Provost search, two or more Deans are recommended. Any academic search should also include staff members and a student member of the Committee. For both Dean and Provost searches, 11-13 members can be a workable number to include. An odd number of Committee members is recommended in the event that a vote is taken at any point in the search.
Trusted representatives from their respective departments will maintain a commitment to inclusivity and diversity. They will keep the search process goal-oriented while mitigating bias and encouraging a reputable search. They will make time for meetings, contribute valuable insights, and ensure that the search process is an efficient one that meets critical deadlines, in the end helping the hiring authority come to an informed decision. Trusted members of the institution are also inclined to work collaboratively, reducing the likelihood of conflicts.
When selecting Committee members that represent specific groups, make sure that they work with a broader perspective, in the interest of the institution. In seeking top talent for leadership roles, each member should work towards the goals of the institution, putting aside the interests of their own group, department, or discipline.
Every Search Committee should focus on building consensus to foster shared decision-making. The Search Chair is responsible for motivating the Committee to come to a consensus. Rigorous debates and differences of opinion are a healthy part of every search process and help gather multiple perspectives and insights, but the goal of reaching consensus should be a cornerstone of Committee meetings. The hiring authority can support consensus by encouraging respectful debate, ensuring confidentiality, and supporting the Search Chair’s decision-making.
Appoint people from different backgrounds to the Search Committee. This keeps the whole team committed to upholding the principles of inclusivity and diversity and generates a wide range of perspectives in identifying the right candidate. A diverse Committee also helps to ensure campus stakeholders feel represented in the search process.
The Search Chair plays a major role in guiding the Search Committee to ensure that the search process is a success. From informing the members about their roles and responsibilities to reviewing each step of the process, aligning the Committee with the goals of the institution, and working in partnership with key stakeholders, the Search Chair (in a DIY search) needs to allocate a minimum of 100 hours of their time. For DIY searches it is imperative that Search Chairs have institutional support such as administrative and scheduling assistance.
Some Search Committees appoint a Co-Chair who helps balance the workload throughout the search process.
From advertising the role to final selection, conduct an in-depth review of all the steps within the search. Discuss best practices to conduct a successful search and the common stumbling blocks that Search Committees usually face.
For more steps on how to train a Search Committee, download our ‘Guide,’ which includes a checklist, timing, and budget recommendations.
The role of a Search Committee is critical in higher education leadership searches. Being aware of common Search Committee pitfalls will help guide institutions in how they organize and conduct their search process to ensure the appointment of an ideal candidate. Discussing these challenges and best practices with the Search Committee positions the Committee for success in both the process and the outcome of the search.
Search firms support a comprehensive search process. A search firm like AGB Search brings its expertise and best practices in developing a diverse talent pool, identifying suitable candidates, conducting interviews, and gathering background information. Our search consultants work as your full-time partners and keep your goals at the forefront, safeguard the confidentiality of the search process, ensure that the search meets its timeline benchmarks, attracts a diverse and well-qualified pool of candidates, and works in compliance with the rules and ethical standards of the institution to aid in recruiting the ideal candidate for higher education leadership roles.
To gain access to the complete process for a successful executive search, download our ‘Guide to a Successful Executive Search for Provosts and Deans.’