Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Legislators and Higher Education: A Dangerous Mix

Today's Chronicle has a story about the Illinois state legislature, which is considering a bill that would dictate the hiring practices of public universities in Illinois:
Illinois Bill Would Ban Use of Search Firms in Hiring at Public Universities
As a faculty member, I have long had suspicions about the use of 'consultants' on expensive contracts written by the administration. I've seen plenty such projects produce little or nothing of value, often at great expense to the university or college. On the other hand the administration in question usually wasn't producing anything of value either, so the outcome wasn't very surprising. But they can be a terrible waste of money that could be much better put to other purposes.

In the realm of searches for administrative positions, however, I think the story is more complex. If you are lucky enough to have a really good internal candidate or two - people you know would be a great fit for the job - then the sensible thing is to forego not only a search firm but an external search entirely. Do the search internally, hire your best internal person, and be done with it. You get a great dean/provost/what have you, and it costs you very little.

I watched a university fail at this several years ago. They had an absolutely outstanding internal candidate - recipient of Teacher of the Year, an internationally recognized scholar in his field, and he had been doing a terrific job as Interim Dean for a year already. For petty internal political reasons, the university decided to do an external search, wasting time and money flying in inferior outside candidates. In the end, they hired the internal guy anyway - but forcing the search open had by then put him on the radar of search firms. Two years later he was hired away by another search firm, and the university lost him. The moral of the story: if you have really good internal talent, keep it.

The problem comes when universities don't have really strong internal candidates - which, more often than not, they don't. Despite the image of academic administration as the defining case for the Peter Principle ("Those who can't do, teach. Those who can't teach, administrate."), it is in fact hard to find people who are really good administrators.

The demand for people who really know how to lead an academic institution far exceeds the supply. On the other hand, there is no lack of mediocre administrators who think they can do the job, but who will in fact largely just take up space. Mixed in with that are a few who will do active and real harm. So the challenge of searching for a new administrator in any position of significance is how to avoid those people and find one of the few good ones.

This is where search firms can in fact be of very real value. I recently watched two simultaneous searches for dean positions. One employed a search firm, the other did not. The candidates from the consultant-led search were all strong, and the college in question ended up with someone who has a good chance to really move the institution forward.

The other search, with no consultant, led to on-campus interviews with four different candidates, one internal and three external. One or two of these were unsuitable even on paper, and none of them were strong enough to attract the support of either the faculty or the administration. The search crashed, and will now have to be redone. The college in question spent thousands of dollars, and hundreds of staff and faculty hours, in exchange for nothing.

This is where the interference of legislatures can be really dangerous. It's easy to point to situations where using a search firm is a terrible idea, and other cases where they are worth every penny they're paid. But legislators only know solutions in black and white. In this case, a mandate to forbid all use of search firms is likely to cause as many problems as it solves.

It's also a great way for the legislature to say to the administrators of the state's public universities, we don't trust you to do your jobs well. Given that the legislators in question have never met most of these people and have only the vaguest idea what they do, this is simply insulting - which is not going to make it easier to hire good administrators into Illinois institutions either.

Here's hoping that the broader legislature in Illinois chooses to sit this one out. Management with a sledgehammer from 500 miles way is never a good idea, however politically appealing it may seem.

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