Reassuringly expensive

Headhunters cannot expect academics to help them fill senior roles without remuneration, argues Ron Johnston

April 26, 2012

I was recently phoned by a headhunting firm seeking my assistance in finding candidates to be head of the department of X at the University of Y.

After the headhunter's initial spiel telling me about the department, clearly read from a prepared script (I knew a lot about it anyhow, having been an assessor for three chair appointments there in the past decade), he asked if I could suggest any suitable names of individuals who could provide the leadership needed to drive the department forward. I asked how much they would pay me for the advice. After some spluttering I was told nothing. I then pointed out that they were being paid handsomely by the University of Y and yet they expected me to give them the raw material for free. They said they didn't work that way; I said I didn't work their way - and there the conversation ended. I gather from some colleagues that they had been similarly approached and had declined to respond, too.

I emailed senior managers at the University of Y and told them what I had done and why. Their reply expressed disappointment that I was unable to assist in a "common method for many senior academic appointments and one certainly successfully used by" their university.

Interestingly, a month later - and clearly without having appointed a head - the university advertised a number of lectureships in the department, which was described in glowing terms. I was left wondering why they needed a new leader.

I have been asked directly by several universities to help them with appointments in a variety of ways on many occasions, and have almost invariably done so - freely (in every sense of that word); it is part of the quid pro quo on which universities have long depended. During the years when I was responsible for senior appointments at a university, I frequently asked individuals for such advice: I was never refused.

Now the University of Y (and no doubt others) prefers to approach us through an intermediary that will be paid and so will make money out of us (reducing the amount of money the university has available for other purposes); perhaps adding some value to the information it gleans, but expecting to get that information from us for free. I know of no scientific evidence that the outcome is any better; universities are surely just lining the pockets of headhunters who rarely have any deep appreciation of the context they are working in.

The exercise can have its lighter moments. A firm of headhunters once invited me to apply for a chair at a university in New Zealand. I asked the headhunters if they were really serious in approaching a 64-year-old, and they stressed that I ticked all the boxes in their standard search - so, I later discovered when discussing it with friends, did some who were already retired. Some months later they approached me again and asked if I could suggest the names of good candidates. Being consistent, I asked how much they would pay. I was told that if any name I suggested were shortlisted, the company's representative would buy me a beer. I laughed and deleted the email.

A few days later I received a phone call. The caller said: "You won't remember me, but you taught me geography at the University of C in the late 1960s." I agreed. He asked if I remembered the email offering a beer; I said yes. He asked how I'd reacted; I said I had laughed, it was a good Kiwi response. My former student said that his boss had seen the email and thought that he had insulted a distinguished academic, and could I send an email saying that he hadn't? I agreed, and offered to buy him a beer one day.

My advice is hopefully worth more than a beer. I am happy to give it free directly to universities and other bodies, however, just as I am happy to referee papers (at least one a week on average) as part of the social contract that sustains our collaborative enterprise. People refereeing my papers assisted my career, so it is incumbent on me to repay that debt - to the community at large if not to the individuals concerned. But if university "managements" are now "marketising" the search for information, their capitalist subcontractors must expect a bill.

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