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. I receive at least one of these letters a month, and I always wonder what would happen if I asked for a fee for helping the firm to do its job.
Headhunters’ professionalism is also questionable. If they do not think much of your candidacy, it is not uncommon for them simply to ignore you. There have been several occasions when I have been on a longlist, but the firm never even bothered to tell me that I did not make the shortlist.
Additionally, on more than one occasion, I discovered that the headhunter contacted some of the people I listed as references on my application to discuss whether they would be interested in applying for the job themselves. In one even more bizarre instance, I spent several hours talking with a search firm representative, only to discover that he was a twentysomething humanities graduate, who went on to ask my advice about which MBA programme to apply for.
The problem is that none of these failings can ever be proved because the search firm will always hide behind the faculty committees that are formally responsible for shortlisting and hiring candidates – even though, in all but the most prestigious institutions, this is a naive illusion given the search firms’ powerful impact on who ends up on the shortlist.
All of that said, it is also important to realise that the search firm’s involvement is itself sometimes used by university leaders to mask their own manipulation of the selection process. A good example was when a faculty member on a selection committee put my name forward for a job at their institution. We were both surprised when I failed to make it through to the committee stage. It turned out that this was because the search consultant talked to the provost who, as he “did not want to waste the committee’s time” with candidates he would veto anyway, decided to veto them first.
In an article last year, the Financial Times lamented the “leadership void” created by the short tenure of business school deans. What went unmentioned was the possibility that the selection process was leading to the wrong people being hired. The irony is that search firms benefit from this failure because it ultimately leads to more searches.
The author, who wishes to remain anonymous, is a chaired professor and senior administrator at a leading European business school. He has held professorships and administrative roles at institutions in Europe and beyond.