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Much at stake in ISU president search, and many ways to err

A man and a woman seated in a stadium
Emilly Bollinger
WGLT file
Former ISU president Terry Goss Kinzy and former athletics director Kyle Brennan during the introduction of a new head basketball coach in 2022.

Illinois State University trustees have chosen to use Parker Executive Search as the hiring and consulting firm to help find the next president. The firm will be paid $110,000 plus expenses.

There's a lot to be done to identify a diverse pool of highly qualified candidates and make sure the new leader will be a quality hire. ISU also is likely to use a search firm to find a replacement for ousted athletics director Kyle Brennan next year.

There’s not always a clear idea during searches of who does what, and there's some disagreement about the efficacy of using search firms.

“I know of cases here where search firms have been beneficial, and I also know where there have been problems, but we’ve also had problems when we don’t employ a search firm. So, I really think that remains an open question,” said professor of English and former Academic Senate chair Susan Kalter.

Best practices

There are some best practices when a search firm is used.

The university should create the contract. Most don’t, according to Judith Wilde, a research professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and the founding director of the school. A university also should be specific about what it wants done — for instance, who calls references and who calls off-list references, said Wilde.

She said about half of search firms studied called the references candidates listed. Just 43% of firms said they called off-list references, the people the candidate reported to in the past.

The stakes are high. A president can shape a university for decades. And assessing how successful a search is can be similar to evaluating the impact of a university on its students.

“Sometimes its five years, 10 years, 20 years later. The real measure is how these leaders have fared over the course of time,” said Jay Lemons, president of Academic Search, a Washington, D.C.-based search firm that focuses on higher education. He's also a former college president.

And there’s not a lot of time in which to make such a significant choice.

“A faculty hire is like you go on a day and a half date and then get engaged. You have a six-year engagement (until tenure rulings) and then you decide. Presidential hires are — you have a month-long process, of which two days are on campus, and then you get married. And if you screw up, it’s a really expensive divorce,” said ISU political scientist Lane Crothers.

Crothers has served on two presidential search committees, two vice presidential searches, and the athletics director search that hired Sheahon Zenger in 2005. He also is a former chair of the Academic Senate. Crothers was not on the committee that hired former president Terry Goss Kinzy, who resigned early this year.

Two of the last four ISU presidents can be classed as "failed presidencies" because they did not last two years. That’s a definition based on half the average five-year contract, said Wilde.

ISU is not alone in its record of mixed success. In 2006, the average time in service for a university president in the U.S. was 8.5 years. The latest American College of Education study of university presidents published this year shows it’s now just under six years.

Wilde said part of that slide has to do with an increase in “failed presidencies.” To minimize the chance of that, university governing boards overwhelmingly turn to search firms.

Search firms now participate in 94-98% of university presidential searches, depending on who you talk to. A half century ago, that figure was 2%, said Wilde, adding changes in the composition of college boards have played a part in establishing the trend.

It used to be governing boards, except at very large universities and big-name privates, were composed primarily of local business owners and members of the campus' home community. She said that kind of trustee probably had more interest in their hometown university. It’s different now.

“More and more, members of boards at least hold some kind of statewide position, perhaps former (members of Congress), former senators, CEOs or other representatives of bigger firms. They’ve been using search firms for years and years. So, it’s natural for them,” said Wilde.

Boards also tend to be volunteer positions, which can increase the desire to outsource the drudge work of a search.

Most board members have a bachelor’s degree or an MBA, Wilde said, so they don’t know the back end of higher ed. Given how long board members serve, she said, maybe one or two of them have served on a presidential search before. Most haven’t, offering another nudge to hire a search firm.

ISU history lesson

ISU has used an outside search firm for 13 positions in the past decade, spending about $1.1 million in total.

Three of those have been for searches that turned into abrupt departures from the university: president Tim Flanagan, Kinzy, and Brennan. Others have led to candidates who have stayed for many years and left their mark, including Mennonite College of Nursing Dean Judy Neubrander and Vice President for Student Affairs Levester Johnson.

Following the resignation of Kinzy early this year, Bill Sulaski, a former head of the board of trustees, questioned the use of search firms for high-level positions because of that track record.

“… If in fact we're going to spend the kind of money that we do, why do we have these so-called mismatches and poor fit of the choices that we make?” said Sulaski. “Are we really getting what we pay for? But maybe the questions should be addressed to the people that are providing these searches. Why didn't you do a better job for us if we're having these difficulties whatever they are?”

Crothers said three of the four high-level academic searches he took part in involved search firms. Crothers’ general position is search firms are fine if they are properly used and not given undue deference.

He noted hiring officers or boards can use search firms as buffers.

“If it goes badly, of course, those officers and or those boards have an incentive to say it was the search firm,” said Crothers, noting searches in which he participated have worked well. At least one did not go well at all. In all cases, he said the choice of candidate came out of those doing the hiring or running the committee. At times, he said the hiring authority can focus on something the committee may have viewed differently.

“We also don’t know what the background decisions are, right? Maybe the hiring officer thinks a candidate is awesome, but the candidate made unreasonable demands. I have no idea about any of that,” said Crothers.

There are some things outside observers get wrong about search firms.

Ray Lemons, of Academic Search, said the role of a search firm in higher ed is different than it is in the corporate world. In higher ed, the search firms organize and facilitate the search — but it's the campus search committee's job to evaluate the candidates.

"That's probably the most significant misperception that's out there — is that search organizations are the ones that will push candidates forward. That's not typically the case."

Crothers said some search firms contribute to that misconception by hinting they have a “special sauce” or “special candidates” in their portfolio they can deliver to a committee for review and that somehow there is a magic candidate out there who will solve all institutional needs.

“I don’t think that’s true because on all the searches I’ve ever been involved in, whether that is at the senior executive level or is at the faculty level, I do not believe there is a perfect candidate out there and there never has been. It’s always a compromise and it’s always a push and shove process,” said Crothers.

Recruitment is critical though, Lemons said. He maintains that good firms serve as honest brokers to help identify opportunities in an institution, the expressed needs there, and help candidates decide whether they want to pursue it. There’s an element of informing, but unlike in business executive searches, they don’t curate and limit the pool.

Gathering information

It is crucial for the hirer and hiree to have the same vision of the institution. Lemons said one key role of a search firm is to help develop a university profile, in essence the primary marketing document for an institution. Ideally, this prospectus details how a university sees itself, its desired attributes, where it wants to go, and a "leadership agenda" for a potential new chief executive.

“If you are going to effectively do this work you really need to have had your boots on the ground — to have visited a campus, to have engaged as many people as you can, asking them what it is the next president needs to do,” said Lemons.

There are signs that not all potential candidates receive that all-important clear picture. An American Council on Education survey of presidents asked questions about their interview process and how much information from the university was helpful and prepared them for the position.

George Mason University researcher Judith Wilde said the latest data showed there is a gap between expectations and reality.

“If you were a white male, you were more likely to say that the information you got was accurate and helpful. For people of color and women, those percentages went down. They did not feel they were getting accurate informative information,” said Wilde.

Search committees also need a lot of information about candidates even before deciding who to interview. Crothers said search firms provide a service that might not be well understood by those not on the inside. The firms ISU has used for executive levels, Crothers said, have helped create a questionnaire. It’s an opportunity for candidates to offer detail and narrative exposition. That doesn’t mean the applicants are being completely honest, but it does offer a sense of who they are beyond a resume, he said.

Skillsets to succeed

Even with faithful and high-quality questionnaires and leadership profiles, campus committees can go astray. After Kinzy resigned, a member of the search committee that found and recommended Kinzy praised her first-rate academic credentials and said she was the most qualified of the applicants. But academic qualifications may not speak to the skillset needed to succeed as a university president.

Wilde and Crothers said people on selection committees can have a tendency to look for candidates who reflect their own experience. There may be a bias toward credentials instead of skills, Crothers said.

“And academics are relentless about this. ‘Oh! What’s the quality of the publication? Oh! In what journal did it come out?’ I mean we’re all snotheads about that. I’m not exempting me or people like me from this at all,” he said.

"Decisions don’t get to a president’s desk unless they’re hard. At some point you’ve gotta be able to do that."
Lane Crothers, ISU professor and former Academic Senate chair

Then, too, the skills needed in a university president may not be the skills that make for a great faculty member.

“The president, in particular, of any institution has got to be able to do like nine things in 14 seconds. You’ve got to have that generalist sensibility. You’ve gotta have that communication skill and that empathy but at the same time decisions don’t get to a president’s desk unless they’re hard. At some point you’ve gotta be able to do that,” said Crothers.

If you require someone to have been a department chair to then become a dean, you cut off a lot of candidates who might have the skills but have never had the opportunity to be a department chair, said Crothers, adding this is a society-wide tendency, not just in higher education.

Likewise, the skills needed to be successful as a university president may not completely overlap with a hard-charging CEO, some things governing board members from the business world may tend to miss.

“I want to see somebody who embraces shared governance. I want to see somebody who respects our traditions, but who also can begin to formulate in the interview process a direction for the university,” said ISU Academic Senate chair Martha Horst.

Horst said the new university president should be somebody who has the collaborative values of Illinois State inside them.

“They’re listening to people. There’s a sense of respect in the institution. We have our duties, but we’re not going to belittle students. We’re going to respect students. Staff respects faculty. Faculty respect other faculty. The president needs to embody that value and respect,” she said.

Open vs. closed searches

An open search is when the search committee brings finalist candidates for high-level jobs to campus to make public presentations and interact with campus constituencies. A closed search is when the committee does not expose candidates to public review. George Mason's Wilde firmly recommends universities require open searches.

“If you think of any other important public position in the country, there is vetting. Mayors, (members of Congress), that’s all a form of vetting. And it’s very public. University presidents, who typically now at any reasonably sized university get a contract for a million dollars a year, get the least vetting,” she said.

Most often, the search firm requires the search committee to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) to not say anything or contact anyone about the search. That prevents local vetting and makes it so a university could be buying the proverbial pig-in-a-poke.

“Some actually threaten that if a local person is found to go against that NDA, they could be fired, they could go to jail, they could lose tenure. We have found that in a few contracts, that wording,” said Wilde.

ISU has had a tradition of open searches at the finalist level, but that has begun to fade. In recent ISU history, the results of open and closed searches have been mixed. The search that brought Tim Flanagan to campus was open. The one that found Kinzy was not open, but not wholly closed either.

Nationwide, searches were largely closed until the 1960s, followed by several decades of predominantly open searches, according to search firm CEO Jay Lemons. The trend is now back toward closed searches. "Hybrid" searches also are increasingly popular — where select campus constituents, beyond the search committee, get to meet the finalists.

"There are some ways that you can broaden involvement, but also do your best to have the very best and strongest pool of prospects that you can," said Lemons.

In fact, that was the case with Kinzy. Groups who were not on the search committee did meet with Kinzy under a strict NDA.

Wilde said increasingly universities are also splitting the difference and recording presentations by candidates for controlled viewing by stakeholder groups.

Lemons said his firm is agnostic on the question of open-vs.-closed. But he said fully open searches can be a risk to candidates who pursue jobs they don't get.

“And there are just dozens and dozens of examples of leaders who have cost themselves their jobs by just looking," he said. "Sometimes those are loud and public. More often they are private.”

Some of the trend toward private searches, Lemons said, is sparked by the spread of information technology that makes it easier for the home campuses of job candidates to learn that person is looking to leave.

Judith Wilde said the suspicion is that privacy allows search firms to recycle candidates and allows the applicants to avoid getting a reputation for NOT getting picked if they are a finalist, but not chosen more than once. She said there’s a lack of hard data.

“Now, we have made a point of asking search firm people, give us an example of someone who was fired. They say, 'Oh we know it’s happened, but confidentiality, we can’t tell you,'" she said.

Wilde also questioned the logic behind the assertion of risk, citing an example in Montana several years ago when a university president was being recruited for another job.

“She went to her board and said, ‘I want you to be aware of this. I’m not saying I’m going to go, I just want you to be aware.’ So, they offered her a 50% raise to stay, which, if that’s a good president, is what should happen,” said Wilde.

There also is risk to institutions from a secret selection process. The campus lacks a chance to buy in to a new president ahead of time and lacks the support base a favorable public presentation can generate. Wilde cited an experience at the University of Oklahoma-Norman when a new president was named and almost immediately the campus community had widespread protests because of the cost-cutting history of the new leader. That person lasted 11 months, she said. In another instance at the University of Colorado at Boulder, a new president was quickly an unwanted one because of a political bent and a history of ignoring the concerns of minority groups.

Wilde said in any given year, only 20% of presidents hired have been presidents before, which cuts against an argument that the best candidates are sitting presidents and a secret search will encourage them to apply. There simply aren’t enough of those to benefit most institutions.

Crothers said of the searches he's participated in, committee members said they wanted to a candidate who wants to be known as interested in ISU and they wanted to have a candidate who has an opportunity to meet with the constituencies they’re going to interact with.

“The public part of the interview process is vital. You gotta put 'em on and make 'em dance,” he said.

Academic Senate head Martha Horst also said hybrid searches with selected stakeholder groups exposed to the candidates are not enough. It’s important to gather as much data as possible.

“For the president in particular, there’s so many different kinds of employees that you really need to have an open public forum that’s not necessarily curated. Because there’s so many different types of people that report to the president. There are so many different types of jobs at the university,” said Horst.

One countering tidbit, according to Crothers, is that in his past search experiences, the feedback from stakeholder groups and public presentations by the candidates have been similar to the impressions garnered by committee members during the rest of the process. Nevertheless, the more data the better, he said.

And Horst said it’s not necessarily the specific answer to a question that matters.

“How they present themselves. How they think about issues, how they think about problems. Do they say they’re going to consult with people from the campus? Do they say they’re going to gather data before they reach a conclusion? What is their thought process for tackling any sort of question that might come their way?” said Horst.

The open search process provides benefits to the candidates as well as the campus, according to professor of English and former Academic Senate Chair Susan Kalter.

“They need to get to know one another and feel comfortable with one another,” said Kalter. “Ideally when they have that opportunity, then the campus as a whole will become invested in the success of that individual who is chosen, and the individual themselves tries their hardest to live up to those positive expectations.”

Apart from the actual search at hand, Kalter said there also can be a benefit to institutional culture from an open search.

“An open search increases the campus’ trust in the board. And it helps the board to know the campus they are serving more deeply and with a greater appreciation for our dedication and our collective wisdom,” said Kalter.

Wilde said there may be some data to bear out search firm claims that they can deliver a more diverse pool of candidates if the search is private. But that may be a distinction without a difference. She said some search firms have even claimed that over the last two years, 50% of the people they have placed in high positions have been female and 50% have been diverse or people of color.

“Well, those numbers don’t really quite work. They don’t jibe. We have seen a slight increase in the number of women who are becoming presidents of universities. People of color as a whole has not changed all that much,” said Wilde.


If done right, Lemons said a successful search produces more than just a single hire. It's a chance to bring a campus together and build social capital.

"We discover that, either faculty or trustees, that neither of them have horns. I think one of the benefits of a successful search in my mind is that there is a chance for a group of people to learn a great deal about the institution," said Lemons.

Crothers said searches have gone best when hiring officers realize the skills needed to do the job. University boards of trustees don’t always have expertise or experience in executive management. There are, however, executive skills assessments in the private sector. That’s one reason he believes seeing candidates in a public setting is important, he said.

And all agree it’s worth sweating these details to make sure the search is a quality effort. The job of university president is huge. And it has multiple, conflicting, and unending cross pressures, said Crothers. And it never ends.

“Done properly, it’s a 24-hour, seven day a week, 365-day-a-year job. You get very little down time to yourself. And you have to find that balance within yourself between being comfortable with the fact that no matter what you do somebody isn’t going to like you for doing it, and still retaining an openness and empathy and a kindness to not get bitter about that fact,” said Crothers.

He also said a president has a different kind of job than 30 years ago. Support staff numbers have been stagnant even as the job demands accelerated. There also is a wide range of local state and federal issues that a president must be able to respond to at a moment’s notice.

All of this makes the job of the search firm, the ISU board of trustees, and the search committee more important and more difficult than ever.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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