A Search Committee Chair Asks: Would you tell us about your policy on, or experience with, the use of psychological tests in the screening process?
Psychological tests, or personality inventories as they are sometimes called, are among the inputs search committees are increasingly using to narrow the pool of potential candidates. But the use of such instruments raises questions of validity and reliability – as well as a range of concerns on the part of the search committee and the individual candidates being assessed. In my early years of training as a psychologist, I administered countless psychological and personality tests in the private sector. I myself have reservations about the validity of existing tests for use in identifying leaders for the academy. I guess I will continue to have reservations until such time as there is agreement on the unique set of skills that define a successful leader in higher education.
A recent presidential search exemplifies some of the other concerns raised by testing. The search committee opted to use psychological tests to assess the leadership potential of the finalists –but not without significant division among committee members. Some of their questions were:
More importantly, we must realize that for some people, these tests produce varying degrees of stress and anxiety, perceiving that very personal aspects of one's identity and personality will be exposed and made public. And no matter how much one tries to allay such feelings or beliefs, some candidates will take the tests willingly, others will do so while under stress, and a few may decide to withdraw from a search rather than undergo testing. In this search, the decision to test the finalists was made after they had been selected. If the decision had been made earlier, and all applicants were aware at the time of submission of materials that such testing would be included in the process, I am certain many would have asked the following questions:
Of the three finalists in the above search, one had experience with such tests in the past, and earlier in his career had been involved in test development. The second had not experienced such tests, did not want to be tested, and considered withdrawing, but was convinced finally to proceed. The third finalist simply agreed.
As the use of psychological and personality inventories increases, one can imagine that more questions about these tests will emerge – but that more answers will as well. In any case, we need the best possible approaches to identifying potential leaders.