The Inclusive Way to Hire an Athletic Director

July 14, 2023 – A few decades ago, collegiate athletic directors – unlike other university administrators – were often hired through back-room conversations that excluded the general campus community. Oftentimes, if the head football or men’s basketball coach expressed interest, they were often tabbed as the next AD without much consideration of other potential candidates.

“Today, as the athletic director role has become more visible and valuable to the institution and its mission, the process of selecting a new AD must be comprehensive and inclusive,” according to a report from WittKieffer’s Jeff Compher. “Conducting a search from a recycled, hand-picked list of potential candidates is no longer acceptable, and does not result in the strongest candidate pool. Today’s athletics departments have grown in complexity and influence, and require a thorough search process that uncovers the very best candidates available in the market.”

The AD role has developed into one that transcends the athletics department and is now considered an ambassador for the entire university, says WittKieffer. A competent and effective AD should have the ear of the president and be able to speak to the vision and direction of the entire university as context for the role of athletics. ADs at all collegiate levels engage with VPs and vice chancellors from across the institution and must be true collaborators.

To ensure that a search for a new AD is as inclusive as possible and has the buy-in from key campus constituents, WittKieffer offers four simple best practices institutions should follow:

1. Create A Broad, Inclusive Search Committee
The composition of an AD search committee should be similar to a chancellor or president search committee. There are many critical factions on campus that want, and deserve, a say in who the next athletic director will be. They include: students, coaches for men’s and women’s sports, faculty, someone from student affairs or student success, a representative of advancement and/ or alumni relations, and even one or two alums or major donors. It also helps to have a current athletic administrator, who can be an invaluable resource on the state of the department for the rest of the committee. It is not unheard of to have a trustee, particularly if the institution’s board has an athletics subcommittee. Finally, WittKieffer says that a campus leader on diversity, equity, and inclusion can be a key addition. All told, the committee may have at least a dozen members, though an even larger committee is possible and may be advised based on the campus culture.

2. Listen Carefully
In the Zoom era, virtual listening sessions are replacing or supplementing the in-person “start-up meetings” that take place across campus as a search begins. To hear from varied constituents, multiple meetings are necessary to get input on what kind of person would make a great AD for that particular institution. What should be on the AD’s agenda? What kind of qualifications, qualities, and leadership philosophy are required? What type of athletics culture are we creating? Many key constituencies – faculty, students, coaches, and alums included – want to be heard, and should be heard. The search committee and search consultants will track the major themes and topics from these sessions and use them as the foundation for the written leadership profile for the position, and ultimately to assess potential candidates.

3. Remember that Confidentiality Doesn’t Sacrifice Inclusivity
The campus community would like the AD search process to be as open and consensus-driven as possible. That said, they usually understand the need for confidentiality regarding top candidates. Given the high-profile nature of the position and the often intense media coverage that follows the AD, few candidates want their home institutions to know they are considering another job – this could seriously undermine their reputations and effectiveness in their current roles, says WittKieffer. If confidentiality can be maintained through to the finalist stage, the pool of candidates will be much broader and stronger.

Therefore, WittKieffer notes, it is essential that the search committee and search consultants communicate clearly to campus stakeholders why candidate confidentiality is important, and how their input will be used to inform the committee’s work in moving candidates forward despite the fact that the process cannot be fully open to all parties across campus.

4. Keep Diversity Front and Center
Issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion; social justice; and cultural sensitivity are central themes that permeate campus conversations, and are equally important to the lives of student athletes. Institutions seeking a new AD expect to see and consider a diverse slate of finalists. For these reasons it is critical that the search committee include broad and diverse representation, and that it conduct a fair and equitable recruitment process—including being conscious of how implicit bias impacts discussions and decisions about candidates. Finally, WittKieffer says that it’s important to develop interview questions that allow for candidates to demonstrate their commitment to and past successes in diversity, equity and inclusion. Top candidates will want to know that the search committee is fluent on matters related to diversity and that the institution itself is a progressive, collaborative and inclusive environment within which new hires will flourish.

WittKieffer assists hospitals, health systems, academic medical centers, medical schools, and physician groups; biotech, pharmaceutical, diagnostics and medical device companies; colleges and universities, and not-for-profit community service and cultural organizations with senior administrative recruiting assignments. With more than 100 search professionals nationwide, its consultants recruit CEOs, CFOs, COOs, CNOs, physician executives, and other leaders.

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