There has long been debate about the value of transparency regarding candidate pools in higher education presidential searches. Some institutions are required by law to reveal the names of applicants in a presidential search, including semi-finalists and finalists. Others, while not legally required to do so, will reveal the names of finalists, as they may be expected to conduct campus tours and meet a variety of stakeholders.
As executive search experts, we see the merits of fully open searches in some instances; yet, we also recognize the benefits – to both the institution and candidates – of closed searches. What is the best approach for colleges and universities as they endeavor to identify the best presidential candidate in as inclusive a process as possible? Let’s examine the options.
For institutions in states without Sunshine law exemptions, every candidate who applies for the position may be subject to public disclosure. Other institutions may not disclose applicant information beyond the search committee until the semi-finalist and finalist stages. Proponents of open searches believe full transparency is key to achieving the most successful outcome, giving all constituencies an opportunity to weigh in on the process and the applicant pool.
There is a modified open search option that includes inviting a representative group of constituents - usually under a non-disclosure agreement - to meet with finalists before an appointee is selected. This option allows institutions to maintain candidates' confidentiality, while affording stakeholders that opportunity to participate in the process.
In closed searches, candidate information remains limited to the search committee or hiring authority until the appointment is announced.
Advocates of closed searches maintain that this approach better protects applicant privacy and the security of the candidate’s current leadership role. To that end, closed searches may yield larger and potentially more qualified candidate pools. Moreover, search committee members may feel that they can have truly candid discussions about candidates when they can do so in a confidential manner.
There is a middle ground that allows for a level of transparency in the presidential search process – a hybrid approach in which only the finalists’ names are made public. By employing this method, institution leaders give interested parties the opportunity to weigh in before a decision is made, but not so early in the process as to delay progress. Some states require that sole finalists be announced within a specific time frame of the vote, allowing for a comment period.
With more than 4,000 institutions across the country, with enrollments ranging from hundreds of students to hundreds of thousands, there is not a one-size-fits-all answer to the transparency question. The circumstances at various institutions can be vastly different, and AGB Search is committed to supporting the approach that best serves the unique needs of individual client institutions.
Regardless of whether the search is open or closed, there are some best practices to support the involvement of diverse voices in the decision and facilitate a shared governance approach to the final selection.
Search committees are instrumental in ensuring that a diverse cross-section of representative voices can weigh in on the hiring of a new president. The multiple perspectives provided by the search committee, and its individual members, add important insights and thoughtful nuance to the decision-making process. Search committees, usually appointed by the Board of Trustees, can be composed of members of the Board, faculty, administrators, students and alumni. It’s important to ensure the search committee is diverse and inclusive and that all members’ input is encouraged and valued.
Digital tools allow institutions to quickly obtain data regarding what key constituents are hoping for or expecting in their next president. While it’s not possible to act on every opinion, a digital survey can reveal trends that may be helpful in the development of the position profile and in the search process.
Inviting members of the campus community and beyond to participate in town hall meetings gives them the opportunity to ask questions, hear others’ concerns, and learn more about the final candidates. Public meetings, particularly if they are streamed online, allow more interested parties to hear directly from prospective presidents and voice their opinions at a critical juncture in the hiring process.
We want to hear from you about transparency in presidential searches. Take our 30-second survey about whether presidential searches should be open, closed, or hybrid. Individual responses are confidential. We appreciate your time!