February 19, 2020 – Confusion abounds in the marketplace regarding academic executive recruiting vs. corporate search work. Every search is unique, and each finds its own path. It’s possible, however, to draw some generalizations about the differences and similarities in search work, says Shawn M. Hartman, vice president and chief operating officer of Washington, D.C.-based Academic Search.
“If you want to see search consultants at a higher education firm squirm, call them headhunters,” said Mr. Hartman in a recent conversation. “We do not consider ourselves as such, because our role and larger mission is one of managing and informing the search process, in partnership with the institution.”
Search committees, both campus and corporate alike, do much of the initial screening and selecting candidates for interviews. What sets academic recruiters apart from corporate search consultants is that the former are frequently asked for insights on or knowledge about candidates, and even use their extensive higher education connections to improve the candidate pool.
“For example, in one recent campus search, the search consultants were asked whether they knew of anyone else (not already in the pool) who should be considered for the position,” said Mr. Hartman. “The search consultants recommended three additional individuals who, as it turns out, were named as the three finalists. Our search consultants’ service in the academy provides them with exceptional insights into campus culture and unrivaled expertise in evaluating candidate credentials.”
A Pioneering Firm
When Academic Search was founded more than 43 years ago, the firm was the sole provider that focused exclusively in higher education, said Mr. Hartman. Since then, several firms that specialize in higher education have jumped into the arena – and many commercial firms now feature a higher education practice or division. Heidrick & Struggles jumped in early with a dedicated practice, for example, making it an academic recruiting pioneer among the top five search providers. Today, the other four stay busy with education-focused practices of their own. Nevertheless, said Mr. Hartman, “much of the standard higher education search process today is rooted in the early work of Academic Search.”
Many, if not most, senior consultants who conduct searches for colleges and universities have spent time in higher education, often at multiple institutions. “We have served as faculty members, administrators and executives on campuses – and that experience provides us with special insights,” said Mr. Hartman. “This critical eye enables us to better assist hiring authorities in evaluating campus culture and identifying leadership potential.”
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Most higher education searches are conducted under normal circumstances or during a natural transition in leadership. Occasionally, though, searches may follow very public disruptions or take place during challenging times. “In these often-fraught searches, higher education search consultants can help candidates and campuses manage expectations for the search and wade through the politics, personalities, and perspectives that may disrupt or hinder the process,” said Mr. Hartman.
Having sometimes lived through these experiences themselves, Academic Search’s consultants not only provide a unique perspective on the situation, but they share a general passion for higher education and a strong view of the mission of the institution. “Our work is not about simply doing a search to find the best candidate, but rather is focused on leading the institution through challenges and managing change with a critical eye,” said Mr. Hartman. “We are deeply invested in the success of the higher education sector.”
A Deliberate Process
The firm’s higher education search process is deliberate, individualized for each client and avoids “recycling” candidates from one search to another. “We do not view any search as a simple transaction to fill a seat, but a rather as a shared effort—a deliberate process designed to position the campus and candidate for success and a smooth transition,” said Mr. Hartman.
In many corporate searches, human resources officers fill this function, he said. In higher education administrator searches, it is the responsibility of the search firm to run a process with these outcomes in mind. Oftentimes, campuses do not even include a representative from human resources on the search committee.
Academic Search takes pride in the feedback it receives from its campus search efforts, said Mr. Hartman. Candidate development and care is of primary concern. “We aim to keep the candidates fully informed of their status and we provide valuable feedback when we can,” he said. “Candidate care varies greatly among firms and because higher education is a relatively tight-knit industry, word travels. Candidates will spread the word about which search firms are the best to work with.”
What’s more, higher education searches are highly democratic and can involve almost everyone on a campus. “One of the most valuable innovations our predecessors at Academic Search created was ‘the pre-search visit,’ during which the senior consultant spends time at the institution, sometimes more than two full days, to speak to and hear from individuals across the campus,” said Mr. Hartman. The visit includes individual constituency meetings as well as open forums for anyone on campus to participate in the discussion of what the entire search process should look like and what attributes and qualifications an ideal candidate should possess.
As with so much in higher education, searches take much longer than in other sectors. The academy tends to act with deliberate consideration and broad consultation, with thoughtful attention to mission and values. “The partnership between the search firm and the institution is designed to both honor the culture of higher education and to facilitate a search process that will work best for that institution,” said Mr. Hartman. “Enough time needs to be factored into the search process for the committee to meet; reach agreement on what attributes, traits, skills and background they are looking for in candidates; recruit the candidates; and evaluate their credentials.”
An Academic Calendar
Academic-related positions are tied to an academic calendar, which reduces flexibility. Spring calendars are especially tricky. “With holidays, spring break, and graduation, the calendar becomes a challenge to manage,” said Mr. Hartman. “If we are working with a faith-based institution, several additional holidays might need to be considered when creating a search calendar. It is not unusual for an academic-related search to take five or six months.”
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For private campuses, the private sector, non-profit associations and the like, searches are not necessarily open to the public. Public institutions and the government sector, however, are subject to open record or sunshine laws. “While we applaud the goal of these laws, they do present recruiting challenges,” said Mr. Hartman. “Privacy in searches is often paramount. High-profile campus administrators may be concerned about losing their jobs if it becomes known they have expressed interest in a position at another campus—a concern that may dictate where they apply.”
“Clearly, presidential candidates prefer to search for positions that are not subject to sunshine laws,” he said. “Confidentiality is a critical concern for our candidates and most campuses recognize that.”
Tensions about transparency and disclosure in higher education search certainly exist. With a shared governance model, there is much greater expectation for input and feedback. The search is expected to be more of a group process than an autocratic decision. This is especially true for presidential searches. “We work extensively with our search committees to address confidentiality concerns such as not using candidate names or emailing or posting online details of the search,” said Mr. Hartman. “This would be true for anyone in the public sector search space. These are unique challenges that are not easily recognized by private industry.”
CVs vs. Resumes
Another big difference between searches for higher education vs. other sectors is that academic candidates will often submit a forty-page curriculum for a position as opposed to a simple resume. “These CVs are personally reviewed by search committee members—there is no resume reader or algorithm driving the review of a CV for an academic search,” said Mr. Hartman. “A cover letter for a higher education application is often longer as well. Each institution produces a profile outlining a leadership agenda that needs to be addressed by the incoming appointee. That profile may outline a multitude of items that a candidate will try to respond to, resulting in a lengthy cover letter.”
Further, many campuses ask recruiters to help them address the issues of privilege and classism when reviewing CVs. “They recognize the inherent bias that can often come with reviewing a CV rather than a resume, just as a resume reader or AI interface confirms bias,” said Mr. Hartman. “The role of the search firm, in partnership with the committee, is often to help individuals on campus understand how to build a diverse candidate pool and advance equitable consideration of that pool.”
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Mr. Hartman pointed out, however, that executive searches for higher education and those for other sectors have their commonalities as well. “We all care about our clients and want the best for them,” he said. Other similarities range from the pride that all recruiters take in solving the big challenges that searches can pose, to navigating the minefields of social media, to meeting the highest standards of confidentiality and ethics.
“Executive search is a challenging endeavor, regardless of sector,” said Mr. Hartman. “Some of the search difficulties faced in higher education are not unique. Ensuring equity and inclusion, due diligence, and a host of other issues certainly cut across sectors and are a strong focus of our work.”
“However, higher education search offers a fun and dynamic engagement that features some unique nuances, particularly the strong commitment to mission and values,” he said. “For our team, serving in higher education is a calling—we are committed to the academy and strive always to give back through our efforts to recognize and recruit exceptional talent for senior positions.”
Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; and Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media