A “closed” search for president became an issue at the University of Manitoba recently, after the university senate requested an open, more public, search process to fill the position (the current university president, David Barnard, will be stepping down in June 2020). The university’s board of governors – rightly, I think – turned down the request.
The Ontario Council of University Faculty Associations, in a new report, Collegial governance at Ontario universities, agreed with the U of M senate request. The report criticizes closed searches for senior university administrators, arguing that that they have “the negative impact of narrowing the type and quantity of information about candidates that can be obtained.”
“Open” searches include some public element. Usually, this is in the form of public presentations to the university community, which are followed by an opportunity to submit comments and recommendations to the search committee.
As a veteran of (too) many senior searches, open and closed, I believe that open searches are unfair to those who apply for senior administrative positions and unfair to the members of the committees – including the faculty members on such committees – appointed to conduct such searches. For a number of reasons, they are less likely to result in the best appointments.
I have never met a search consultant that favoured open searches, and it’s not because they have a vested interest in opposing them. The complexity of open searches means that search consultants are more, not less, important in such searches – and can charge more for the services that they render.
In my experience, search consultants favour closed searches because they attract a stronger and more diverse candidate pool. I have been on search committees which interviewed presidents from other universities, cabinet ministers in federal and provincial governments, provosts and other high-profile applicants for a position. In many cases, it is impossible for them to enter a public search because their candidacy could raise questions in their current institution.
Open competitions are especially challenging for internal candidates, who must enter a process which will have to include a very public scrutiny of the details of their career and everything they have done – something which must necessarily include a discussion of their flaws and shortcomings.
The scrutiny of those who apply for a position is better done within the confines of a closed search. The idea that individuals outside a search committee are in a position to make an informed contribution to a committee’s decision is at best questionable. What they are able to judge – someone’s ability to speak publicly and respond to questions on one occasion – may provide some useful information but it is not a reliable indicator of someone’s ability to serve as a successful university administrator.
Unlike the members of a search committee, those on the public side of an open search are not participants in the interviews, which provide the most detailed and in-depth opportunity to explore whether someone is a good candidate for a particular position. Unlike search committee members, those on the outside have no access to the confidential comments made by the references for a candidate, and no knowledge of key personnel issues which may play a role in a responsible decision-making process.
The representation of the board, faculty, staff and other stakeholders on search committees is a legitimate matter for discussion and debate. However, the proper way to represent stakeholders is not by having open searches that encourage input from those who are not in a position to make an informed decision, but by including members of stakeholder groups within a search committee, and by respecting the decisions that they and other committee members come to.
Leo Groarke is president of Trent University.