Magazine article Times Higher Education

Aimless Shots from Lazy Headhunters Hurt Academic Leadership

Magazine article Times Higher Education

Aimless Shots from Lazy Headhunters Hurt Academic Leadership

Article excerpt

Lacking insight and seeking only enrichment, search firms deliver obvious, uninspiring candidates, argues a business school professor

Recent years have seen an explosion in the use of search firms in the recruitment of academic leaders. Together with the accompanying decline in the role of academics in the decision-making process, this has led to a dramatic change for the worse in the nature of academic leadership.

Search firms are now the dominant filters for positions from dean upwards. But few academics understand the power that they wield. To do so, it is important to grasp what motivates them. After 20 years of involvement with them, both as a candidate and as a member of search committees that have used their services, I have considerable insight into that.

One very important factor to understand is that search firms do not have an incentive to find the "best" candidate. Their goal, instead, is to earn the most money they can from a given search, and from their longer-term relationship with a client. When it comes to shortlisting, their priority is to ensure - as quickly as possible - that the institution has the number of candidates it feels comfortable with: not that the list has anything approaching the best candidates.

Moreover, few partners at even the most prestigious search firms have meaningful academic experience or substantive knowledge of the sector. So they lack the insight to identify any but the most obvious candidates. Often, the firm will just google phrases such as "associate dean". This leads to an over-reliance on poor signals of ability, such as candidates' current institution (is it more prestigious than the one doing the hiring?) and current position.

This, in turn, has helped to fuel the rise of a permanent administrative class in universities. When I first became an academic nearly 30 years ago, administrative roles were filled on a rotating basis by senior faculty. Today, it is not uncommon to see people holding two, three or four deanships in a row, because the incumbents know that search firms focus on people with the "right" titles. We end up with a leadership structure based not on the strongest mix of academic and management talent but on those whose academic prospects were so limited that they made an early decision to pursue another path.

Another lazy approach used by search firms is to ask academic faculty in the client institution to suggest names. However, at most institutions this is just window-dressing because if this is all that needs to be done, where is the value in hiring (at considerable cost) a search firm? Hence, internally generated suggestions are invariably discounted and the firms, instead, supplement their Google searches by spamming senior people at other universities, asking them to recommend candidates. …

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