Balancing Confidentiality with Transparency in a Higher Education Leadership Search

By Dennis Barden and Zachary A. Smith, Ph.D.

Every leadership search in higher education requires delicately balancing candidate confidentiality with the institution’s right to a certain degree of transparency. This task is never easy. By thoughtfully considering the key questions below, a search committee and institutional leaders can ensure that all parties are satisfied and the selection process is viewed as fair and legitimate.

What is the goal of any search for institutional leadership?

  • A fair, open, inclusive search with a process that provides confidence to the institutional community.
  • A robust pool of candidates from which to choose.
  • A search process that is embraced by the institutional community and all of its constituencies.
  • The hiring and enfranchisement of a leader with the ability and experience necessary to perform at a superior level and a style that comports with the culture of the institution and the values of its people.

Why do campuses value openness in leadership searches?

  • It is in keeping with the traditions of shared governance. Shared governance is a foundation of higher education and ensures engagement and credibility with the broad range of campus constituents.
  • It is often mandated. Especially at state institutions, there are “sunshine” laws that mandate certain degrees of openness during recruitments.
  • Campus constituencies want a say in leadership selection. Students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community members desire input in and ownership of the process.
  • It legitimizes the process. Searches that are conducted with transparency are viewed as fair and impartial, legitimizing the selection and providing the new leader with a foundation for success.
  • Openness increases the likelihood that a broad range of candidates will be considered. Institutions are more likely to consider a large, diverse slate of candidates and rely less upon their network of contacts if the process is conducted will input from multiple parties.

Why do candidates seek confidentiality?

  • Some will not seek a position without it. Many strong candidates will not face the risk of compromising themselves in their current positions if they know their involvement will be made public at any point of the search process. There is no longer any news that remains local; home institutions are aware immediately when their leaders appear in the media anywhere in the world.
  • They wish to learn about the position without distraction. Both when deciding to apply and while an active candidate, leaders are learning as much about the institution and the position as they can and typically wish to do so outside the spotlight. They desire a buffer period to consider the “fit” of the job with their professional goals and family lives. Intelligent, thoughtful, reasoned candidates will not take a job without the opportunity to make such a thoughtful, dispassionate analysis, and most will not make the effort if they run the risk of compromise in their current position.
  • Relationships can be jeopardized. Sitting presidents and other leaders in higher education have relationships with faculty, donors, and other individuals at their home institutions that can be damaged if it is a matter of public knowledge that they are considering other positions; right or wrong, their loyalty to their current institution can be questioned, so they wish to delay “going public” as long as possible.
  • Their current jobs can be at stake. When it becomes public that presidential and other leadership candidates are considering another institution, it can create tension and even an untenable situation within their current institutions and with donors and other contacts. Unlike many faculty members, administrative leaders seldom enjoy the protections of tenure or other contractual arrangements that prevent their being released from their positions at will.

How can both parties be satisfied?

  • A “hybrid” approach to search that balances confidentiality with openness is possible.
  • Boards can be proactive in determining, with campus constituents, how the search process will be conducted and how to handle the issue of candidate confidentiality while ensuring the integrity and credibility of the search process and its final outcome.
  • Students, faculty, staff, and community members can still have a voice. Constituents can be highly involved in establishing the expectations for the search through public forums, surveys, and other communications with the board, search committee, and search consultants. Arrangements can be made for a confidential interview process in which representatives of institutional constituencies can interact with and provide feedback on final candidate on behalf of their colleagues, in keeping with the traditions and protocols of shared governance.