Jeffrey Harris, Founder and Managing Partner, Harris Search Associates

Jeffrey Harris is the founder and Managing Partner of Harris Search Associates where he leads the firm’s Higher Education, Academic Medicine, and Healthcare Administration practices. Founded in 1997 and modeled after the first premier management-consulting firms, Harris Search Associates is a leading global executive search and board advisory consulting firm focused solely on the recruitment of senior leadership talent to support the growth of the foremost universities, academic medical centers, medical schools, research institutions, and healthcare enterprises driving global innovation and discovery. Based in Columbus, Ohio, and with regional offices in San Francisco and Dallas, the firm has successfully completed over 900 assignments. Jeffrey leads a diverse, seasoned team of over 20 seasoned consultants and staff who combine the recruiting and leadership assessment expertise from the largest, most well-recognized retained search organizations with highly respected, former university Presidents, Provosts, Deans, Vice Presidents, and senior administrators from across the country.  

The Academic Search Process – Convention vs. Adaption

Competition for transformational academic leaders in higher education remains intense as institutions prepare for the future and address looming departures. While the commercial industry has focused on adapting to the changing candidate market, higher education appears content to follow its conventional process where personnel decisions, including hiring, promotion, and tenure require faculty collaboration, a concept commonly referred to as shared governance. The concept is also emblematic of how the recruitment of academic administrators is typically carried out on campus. Traditionally, a search committee representing faculty, administration, staff, and students is assembled to lead the recruitment process and afford significant input as to which candidates will be offered to join them as professional colleagues. A search committee chair is then designated to lead as the committee’s facilitator, committee spokesperson, and as liaison to human resources or the hiring authority. The goal of a search committee for each recruitment should always be the same – to identify and recruit a robust, diverse pool of candidates from which to select an outstanding new academic leader who is aligned with the institution’s values and strategic priorities. As such, the role of an academic search committee is critical, as their decisions have long-lasting implications for their institutions.

Why Do Many Academic Searches Fail?  

Recognizing the importance placed on academic search committees and their impact on each administrative hire to an institution raises the question, why do many academic administration searches continue to fail?  There are certainly many contributing factors, but we theorize that selection bias plays an unfortunate part. Perhaps some of the inherent bias has become rooted in academia’s culture and power dynamics.  Search committees are convened with faculty governance in mind ensuring that institutional stakeholder interests of the institution are represented in a transparent fashion. Central to the faculty governance process is encouraging an environment of open-mindedness, freedom of expression, and commitment to diversity and inclusion in all its forms. And yet dynamics among faculty ranks often influence viewpoints being expressed. Committee members are often asked to participate without having previously served on a search committee or have been limited to serving on faculty search committees where academic, research, and teaching credentials are weighed almost exclusively. Perhaps most concerning, in many cases, committee members are asked to contribute with little or no training on the critical selection criteria for an administrative leadership position. 

Inherent Theoretical Frameworks Undermining Successful Academic Searches

A number of researchers have studied higher education search committee behavior and the associated theory of unconscious bias that may be compromising selection efforts, while many more have identified challenges of engendering faculty diversity and proposed recommendations to create more effective search and recruitment processes. Others suggest that a theoretical framework described as Signaling Theory may partially explain the obstacles that campuses face in their efforts to recruit highly sought-after academic leaders. The theory proposes that the verbal and non-verbal communications and actions of search committee members send organizational culture signals to prospective candidates as to institutional characteristics and norms, the climate of diversity and support, availability of mentoring and networking relationships, prospects for tenure and promotion, and inclusivity of the campus that may be in stark contrast of how the institutions present itself externally. Ultimately, they contend that variables in the hiring environment send signals to the candidate that convey the institutional values and whether an organization is the right fit for them to pursue. They further suggest that the slow progress on the part of higher education to successfully recruit transformational leadership may be attributed to the inability of organizations to train search committees to recognize the signaling effect or modify hiring practices in response to the undesirable signals presented to candidates to ensure successful outcomes for each search. 

The Case for an Outstanding Candidate Experience – How Search Committees Can Help

Recognizing the importance of providing prospective future colleagues with both standardized (consistent) and individualized (personable) treatment during an interview process, on campuses where the successful attraction of academic leaders continues to be a challenge. Search committees should begin re-examining the importance of creating a positive inclusive environment for candidates as part of internal training and revisions to their approach to each interview process to ensure an outstanding candidate experience. Furthermore, search committee members should be coached on how candidates receive and interpret verbal and non-verbal information from their behavior, as this may lead to unconscious assumptions/bias from either party. Finally, to be successful, we suggest that each search committee must begin the search process with an openminded respect for all viewpoints, a commitment to active participation, and a commitment to a comprehensive, fair, transparent, impartial, inclusive search process to ensure an outstanding experience for all candidates. This brings us back to the goal for every search – the recruitment of an outstanding new academic leader aligned with the institution’s values and strategic priorities who will elevate the institution for years to come. Ensuring an outstanding candidate experience is a step in the process towards successfully reaching that goal.


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