Jeffrey Harris, 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. 


For over 25 years, our executive search and management consulting firm has been entrusted by the foremost global higher education institutions to recruit its senior most leadership talent. Increasingly, we are engaged following the unexpected departure of an important institutional leader, the establishment of a new department or center, where timely completion of an assignment is imperative, or where an internal search committee has tried, but not succeeded, to recruit on its own. In every assignment, we are charged with facilitating a process that ensures a robust, diverse, pool of candidates and the selection of an outstanding new leader aligned with the institution’s values and strategic priorities. Curiously, over the last several years, Department Chair searches have become the fastest-growing aspect of our executive search practice. It has become such a common occurrence, that clients who have traditionally retained our firm for Decanal, Provost, Vice President, and Presidential level searches, are now frequently engaging us successfully recruit Department Chairs.

This led us to ask clients what it is about the current challenges of identifying and persuading individuals to serve in the role of department chair that now more than ever prompts the use of an external search partner. Their answers spoke volumes.

The job of Department Chair is an important one and so is selecting the right one

Why do so many Department Chair searches on campus continue to fail?  There are likely several factors, but principally among them may be that the rewards for chairing a department are often seen as minimal. Moreover, faculty members rarely receive formal preparation to prepare them to successfully assume the role. And in some instances, a reluctance to assume the role may be due to a perceived lack of definition around authority, expectations, accountability, and institutional support. By contrast, remaining as a professor, recognized scholar-researcher, and having opportunities to serve on the editorial boards of prestigious academic journals along with professional satisfaction, enduring relationships, and recognition from peers may be viewed as more personally appealing. Despite apprehensions by many faculty to assume the role, the contribution and impact of the Department Chair remain a truly important one. A Department Chair serves as the front-line leader and bridge between faculty and senior administration, considered as the middle manager charged with assigning teach loads, managing promotion and tenure decisions, mentoring faculty and staff, interfacing with students, tending to budgets, and hiring faculty and staff.

The significance of the chair can also extend beyond the department, as many chairs make up the future pools of decanal and provost candidates. The experience gained by a department chair is often indicative of how an emerging leader will serve in a deanship where communication and persuasion are premium skills, and most provosts will have served as a chair. Given the increasing lack of appeal to serve as chair by many faculty members, enticing individuals to assume the role will likely require rewards throughout and at the end of the term of service.

In many instances, the selection of a chair, as suggested above, may involve a process of persuading a current member of the department to serve a term (or more) as chair. Tales of drawing straws with the loser agreeing reluctantly to serve are not uncommon. Examples abound of a department chair position remaining unfilled or someone serving as an acting or interim chair without foreseeable end has become an alarming trend, especially in instances where no one else is willing to take on the job. In these cases, outside assistance may not be required.

Another sign of the significance of the role of the department chair may be seen in instances when a university chooses to seek a chair from outside the institution rather than from within. Such a choice may reflect the resistance or absence of tenured faculty members to fill the chairmanship who can bridge divisions within a department or provide a departure point from the directions the department had pursued previously.

But as the role of department chair has grown, and in many instances, the reputation of a college or university is a function of the strength of departments, so has the awareness that external help is often required to recruit a chair. However, beyond those academic matters are questions about how candidates for the chairmanship view the job and are likely to carry it out. And then there are the cases where a dean and a provost determine that no one in each department is ready to assume a chairmanship or the department needs new insight and leadership and must a chair from outside the institution. In those cases, a search firm may be of assistance.

Making the case for assistance in the recruitment of Department Chairs and suggestions for future searches

A Department Chair search, whether assisted by a search firm or not, provides a transformative opportunity for the campus. Indeed, there is no recipe that ensures a successful outcome; the process remains more art than science. However, careful organization and institutional support can increase the likelihood of identifying the most highly sought-after candidates to assume the role. Increasingly, it is commonplace to invest in an experienced executive search partner with the requisite expertise, history of similar completed assignments, and professional networks, as well as commitment to the attraction of a robust diverse, the pool of candidates to ensure successful outcomes for the search.

Regardless of approach (with or without the assistance of an executive search partner), at a minimum, efforts should begin with multiple stakeholder interviews. The information gained from stakeholders will serve as a key asset for potential candidate engagement and discussion. Clarity around the preferred candidate qualifications, including academic credentials, national/international research prominence, and appropriate leadership experience, as well as short-and near-term expectations, should then be distilled into a compelling leadership profile for the position to share with prospective candidates. This should then be followed by a deliberate and concentrated recruitment effort to engage a cohort of internationally esteemed academic leaders who may be convinced to confidentially entertain a compelling alternative opportunity. Finally, once the search has been completed, to ensure the greatest likelihood of a successful future tenure, campus administration should commit to a thoughtful transition, onboarding, and development plan to support the new Chair. The job of the Department Chair is an important one and so is selecting the right one.

Happy hunting!

Content Disclaimer

Related Articles