Executive search firms blamed for shrinking presidential tenures

Once rare, now commonplace, use of private companies to hire new presidents coming at large cost to US universities, research team finds

November 23, 2021
 NYU mascot The Bobcat rides mechanical bull to illustrate xecutive search firms blamed for shrinking presidential tenures
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Increased turnover among US university presidents is a negative effect of the growing use of outside search firms, researchers have concluded.

Institutional leaders hired in 2005 served an average of 7.7 years, while those hired in 1975 stayed 9.1 years, George Mason University found. Meanwhile, in 1975 almost no universities used search firms, while 79 per cent did in 2005 and 92 per cent did in 2015, they said.

While the evidence cannot support a direct cause-and-effect relationship, there are several indicators that private search firm use is an important contributor to the decline in presidential longevity, said Judith Wilde, research professor of policy and government at Mason.

They include the tendency of professional search firms to rely on recruiting presidents from other institutions; the insistence of such firms on creating an atmosphere of secrecy that prevents faculty and others in the campus community from discussing potential candidates among themselves and with outsiders; the lack of academic experts leading most search firms; and the lack of incentive among such firms to dig deep into candidate backgrounds.

“It’s sort of a conflagration of things that are happening all at the same time,” Professor Wilde.

And the use of search firms, while presented to institutions as saving them time and money, could actually be driving up costs and reducing diversity, said Professor Wilde and her research partner, James Finkelstein, professor emeritus of policy and government at Mason.

That is because the contracts often tie the firm’s fee to the remuneration package of the hired president, typically a third of total first-year payments to the winning candidate, Professor Wilde said. The reliance of such firms on luring existing institutional presidents also serves to inflate their salaries.

Examples of that include Waded Cruzado, the well-regarded president of Montana State University, who at one point had her salary boosted 50 per cent simply because she was being pursued by a search firm.

The more damaging aspects of search firms, however, may lie in the secretive nature of their work, Professor Wilde said. As part of their investigation, the researchers combed through the contracts signed by dozens of universities with private search firms, and found that they regularly required everyone involved in the process at an institution to sign non-disclosure agreements that prohibited them from discussing any candidates with anyone else.

“One of the best networks you’ll ever find is the faculty network,” and yet the search firms forbid that kind of information-sharing from ever happening, with penalties that can include loss of tenure and, in one case, the threat of jail time, Professor Wilde said.

At the same time, the search firms tend to lack expertise in academia, the Mason researchers found. They collected background information on 22 leaders at 21 search firms and found most lacked any experience working in higher education. Only five of them had been a university president, and only one of them was black.

The situation appears to be creating a rash of cases in which presidents leave or are forced out shortly after being hired, the researchers write in a summary of their findings. In several cases, the Mason researchers note, the short-term presidents received payouts totalling $1 million (£700,000) or more.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

I think this was said a bit more forcefully back in 2016 in this same publication (Useless management headhunters damage academic leadership: Lacking insight and seeking only enrichment, search firms deliver obvious, uninspiring candidates, argues a business school professor): https://www.timeshighereducation.com/comment/useless-management-headhunters-damage-academic-leadership. It was also covered in the FT here (Short tenure of deans signals a leadership void Deans increasingly fail to stay at the top in a world that begs for more stability): https://www.ft.com/content/8af77ab4-e442-11e4-9039-00144feab7de.

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