The Inclusive Way to Hire an Athletic Director

By Jeff Compher

A few decades ago, collegiate athletic directors – unlike other university administrators – were often hired through back-room conversations that excluded the general campus community. Oftentimes, if the head football or men’s basketball coach expressed interest, he was often tabbed as the next AD without much consideration of other potential candidates.

How things have changed. Today, as the athletic director role has become more visible and valuable to the institution and its mission, the process of selecting a new AD must be comprehensive and inclusive. Conducting a search from a recycled, hand-picked list of potential candidates is no longer acceptable, and does not result in the strongest candidate pool. Today’s athletics departments have grown in complexity and influence, and require a thorough search process that uncovers the very best candidates available in the market.

The athletic director role has developed into one that transcends the athletics department and is now considered an ambassador for the entire university. A competent and effective AD should have the ear of the president and be able to speak to the vision and direction of the entire university as context for the role of athletics. Athletic directors at all collegiate levels engage with VPs and vice chancellors from across the institution and must be true collaborators.

To ensure that a search for a new AD is as inclusive as possible and has the buy-in from key campus constituents, there are a few simple best practices institutions should follow:

Create a broad, inclusive search committee.

The composition of an AD search committee should be similar to a chancellor or president search committee. There are many critical factions on campus that want, and deserve, a say in who the next athletic director will be. They include: students (include those in student government as well as athletes), coaches for men’s and women’s sports, faculty (often from the faculty senate), someone from student affairs or student success, a representative of advancement and/or alumni relations, and even one or two alums or major donors. It also helps to have a current athletic administrator, who can be an invaluable resource on the state of the department for the rest of the committee. It is not unheard of to have a trustee, particularly if the institution’s board has an athletics subcommittee. Finally, a campus leader on diversity, equity and inclusion can be a key addition. All told, the committee may have at least a dozen members, though an even larger committee is possible and may be advised based on the campus culture.

Listen carefully.

In the Zoom era, virtual listening sessions are replacing or supplementing the in-person “startup meetings” that take place across campus as a search begins. To hear from varied constituents, multiple meetings are necessary to get input on what kind of person would make a great AD for that particular institution. What should be on the AD’s agenda? What kind of qualifications, qualities and leadership philosophy are required? What type of athletics culture are we creating? Many key constituencies – faculty, students, coaches and alums included – want to be heard, and should be heard. The search committee and search consultants will track the major themes and topics from these sessions and use them as the foundation for the written leadership profile for the position, and ultimately to assess potential candidates.

Remember that confidentiality doesn’t sacrifice inclusivity.

The campus community would like the AD search process to be as open and consensus-driven as possible. That said, they usually understand the need for confidentiality regarding top candidates. Given the high-profile nature of the position and the often intense media coverage that follows the AD, few candidates want their home institutions to know they are considering another job—this could seriously undermine their reputations and effectiveness in their current roles. If confidentiality can be maintained through to the finalist stage, the pool of candidates will be much broader and stronger.

Therefore, it is essential that the search committee and search consultants communicate clearly to campus stakeholders why candidate confidentiality is important, and how their input will be used to inform the committee’s work in moving candidates forward despite the fact that the process cannot be fully open to all parties across campus.

Keep diversity front and center.

Issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, social justice and cultural sensitivity are central themes that permeate campus conversations, and are equally important to the lives of student athletes. Institutions seeking a new AD expect to see and consider a diverse slate of finalists. For these reasons it is critical that the search committee include broad and diverse representation (including women and people of color), and that it conduct a fair and equitable recruitment process—including being conscious of how implicit bias impacts discussions and decisions about candidates. (Many institutions offer their own implicit bias training programs to committees, or the search firm – such as WittKieffer does through its LeaderVerse services – may have implicit bias training options as well.) Finally, it’s important to develop interview questions that allow for candidates to demonstrate their commitment to and past successes in diversity, equity and inclusion. Top candidates will want to know that the search committee is fluent on matters related to diversity and that the institution itself is a progressive, collaborative and inclusive environment within which new hires will flourish.

Jeff Compher is a principal and head of WittKieffer’s Intercollegiate Athletics Practice. Based in Chicago, he is the former athletic director at East Carolina University and Northern Illinois University.

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