Confidential Searches for Chief Academic Officers

The impact of search firms and confidentiality.
By Michael Theune and Hans-Joerg Tiede

An AAUP policy statement on the selection of administrators notes that the role of the faculty in administrative searches “should reflect the extent of legitimate faculty interest in the position.” In the case of a search for a chief academic officer, for which the legitimate faculty interest is very high, that role should be direct and broad-based, and it should go beyond simply including faculty members on search committees. However, as we learned in the course of a recent search for a chief academic officer at our own institution, the issue of confidentiality, which is far from moot, can limit the broad-based role of the faculty in these searches.

Table 1. Percentage of national liberal arts colleges using specific search procedures

  Yes No No answer
Did you use a search firm? 65 35 0
Was the initial screening of candidates confidential? 97.2 1.4 1.4
Did finalists have open meetings with campus groups during the search process? 89 8 3
If any part of the search was confidential, were any campus members asked to sign confidentiality agreements? 23 77 0
If the final stage of the search was open, do you believe that you lost candidates who would have participated in the search had it been fully confidential? 3 86 11

During the 2010–11 academic year, Illinois Wesleyan University, an independent liberal arts college located in Bloomington, Illinois, conducted a search for a provost and dean of the faculty. Convened by the president, the search committee consisted of ten members: five faculty representatives (elected by the full faculty—one of the authors, Michael Theune, was a faculty representative and also chaired the committee), three staff representatives (two elected by the university staff council, and one appointed by the president to support the administrative requirements of the search process), one member of the board of trustees (selected in part due to his membership on the board’s Academic Affairs Committee), and one student representative (selected by the student senate). Additionally, the committee was assisted by a search consultant.

The search, as the committee planned it, was to be in almost all ways a typical national search for a major administrative officer. The committee would receive and review numerous applications. The committee would narrow the pool to ten semifinalist candidates, who would then be interviewed off-campus. Three finalists would be invited to campus to meet with a variety of constituencies including, in an open forum, faculty.

The issue of confidentiality became a crucial concern very early in the process. As the committee discussed the search trajectory and timeline, committee members—assuming that there would be an open final stage of the search process—occasionally mentioned the later stages of the search, when candidates would be brought to campus to meet in various venues with faculty, staff, and students. At these moments in the discussion, however, our search consultant advised the committee not to make any promises about how the search would proceed. According to our consultant, candidates for the position of chief academic officer were increasingly requiring fully confidential searches.

Our consultant offered interrelated reasons for what she described as a trend. First and foremost was the simple fact that a desirable candidate most often is one whose current position could be jeopardized, or at least made more difficult, if it were made public that she or he was considering a position elsewhere. This reticence on the part of candidates could be compounded by the fact that the recession made candidates more anxious about holding securely to current jobs. Our consultant also noted that information now travels very easily and fast. In the past, even with an open stage later in a search, a campus might know the candidates, but the whole world would not necessarily be aware of those involved. This has changed in the age of tweets and Facebook status updates. And, finally, our consultant noted that some institutions similar to Illinois Wesleyan currently were considering fully confidential searches for chief academic officers. For these reasons, our consultant believed that the search committee would want to keep its own options open.

Given an involved governance culture at Illinois Wesleyan University, members of the search committee expressed concern about the prospect of conducting a fully confidential search. Having neither empirical data on the pervasiveness of confidential searches, nor (at the time) best-practice statements by educational organizations such as the AAUP to help guide it, the committee found itself in a bind. On the one hand, the committee did not want to lose valuable candidates; on other hand, it did not want to delegitimize the incoming provost by engaging in a selection process that did not reflect legitimate faculty interest in the position. The committee concluded that such a confidential search certainly would not occur without the explicit approval of the faculty. The search committee presented this information at a full faculty meeting, the faculty overwhelmingly voted to recommend to the president not to conduct the search with a final confidential stage, and the president complied.

Pragmatically speaking, all of the above work turned out to be unnecessary: so far as the search committee and consultant could determine, Illinois Wesleyan’s pool of candidates was not at all affected by the requirement that the final stage of the search be open and, as it resulted in a hire, the search was a success. It was, however, more difficult than it needed to be because of what proved to be unnecessary discussion of confidentiality.

Table 2. Percentage of national liberal arts colleges using confidentiality agreements and search firms

Confidentiality agreements at colleges and universities that use a search firm 30
Confidentiality agreements at colleges and universities that didn't use a search firm 8
Confidentiality agreements in 2010 and earlier 11
Confidentiality agreements in 2011 and later 38
Use of search firm in 2010 and earlier 53
Use of search firm in 2011 and later 85

Interested in getting a clearer, more empirical picture of recent trends in the hiring of chief academic officers, we conducted a survey of the 173 private colleges ranked in 2012 under the heading of “National Liberal Arts Colleges” in US News & World Report. We sent the survey to the president’s office of each institution. We chose this group for a number of reasons. We chose private institutions since some public universities are required to make their finalists public, which would distort the results. Within private universities, we chose four-year liberal arts institutions because their governance cultures are relatively similar to one another. For instance, the role of the chief academic officer at smaller liberal arts institutions—where the chief academic officer generally is more directly responsible to the faculty—tends to differ from the role a chief academic officer plays at a large research institution.

We received a total of 72 responses, a response rate of 41.6 percent. The responses discuss searches conducted between 1997 and 2012. Responses to the survey are summarized in Table 1.

We analyzed responses to produce the tabulations in Table 2.

Clearly it is standard for the initial phase of the search to be confidential. Furthermore, for the kinds of institutions the survey examined, open meetings are widely accepted, and very few respondents indicated that candidates were lost due to open searches, invalidating central arguments for confidentiality. Though in their written comments some of the survey’s respondents stated that they were at least willing to consider a confidential final stage, the comments largely were in favor of open final stages. One respondent indicating support for an open final stage noted, “We believe open campus visits at the final stage are essential on our campus, and we believe candidates accept that.” Another said, “We are a very open community and some members would be suspicious of the process if we attempted to ‘hide’ what they consider to be important information about a candidate.” It should be added that, of the five respondents who did not conduct open meetings, two had internal candidates only.

Overall, the percentage of searches with mandated confidentiality agreements is low. Confidentiality agreements were sometimes given to search committees to ensure the confidentiality of the initial phase, even though there were open meetings at the end. One result that initially surprised us was the relatively small number of institutions using search firms; this is increasing significantly over time, however, to the point of being nearly universal, with 93.8 percent of respondents indicating the use of a search firm for searches conducted in 2012. Furthermore, there is a marked difference between the use of confidentiality agreements in searches that are conducted by search firms and those that are not, 30 percent versus 8 percent, suggesting that search firms may be instrumental in promoting the use of confidentiality agreements. The use of confidentiality agreements seems to have increased along with the increased use of search firms.

The AAUP’s Committee on College and University Governance in 2013 approved a statement, Confidentiality and Faculty Representation in Academic Governance, which addresses confidentiality in the context of shared governance in general and searches for administrative officers in particular. Its central recommendation on administrative searches calls for a direct and broad-based role for the faculty in administrative searches, which goes beyond simply considering faculty membership on search committees as sufficient: “Searches for presidents and other chief academic officers should have an open phase that allows individual faculty members as well as faculty bodies to review the credentials of finalists, ask questions, and share opinions before a final decision is made.” Given the empirical results of our survey, this recommendation seems very much in line with common practice. It would be interesting to compare the results of our survey with surveys of different kinds of institutions to see if other kinds of governance cultures employ confidential searches.

We found no evidence for widespread use of confidential searches for chief academic officers or of confidentiality agreements among the cohort of liberal arts colleges and universities that we surveyed. However, with the increased use of search firms, the use of confidentiality agreements is also growing. While search firms can be boons to searches, they may feel drawn toward fully confidential searches, which are easier to organize and control.

Michael Theune is associate professor of English at Illinois Wesleyan University. He is the editor of Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns, and co-editor of “Voltage Poetry.” He serves as vice-president of Illinois Wesleyan’s chapter of the AAUP. Hans-Joerg Tiede is professor of computer science at Illinois Wesleyan University. He serves as chair of the AAUP’s Assembly of State Conferences, on Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, and as chair of the Committee on the History of the Association. He is the editor of the forthcoming 2015 edition of the AAUP Redbook.

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