Secretly Searching for Campus Leaders: proFile of Judith Wilde

I met Judith Wilde earlier this year, when my university was conducting a non-transparent, secretive presidential search. I had given some public statements about the need for transparency in the hiring process, and she reached out to me. Wilde is Chief Operating Officer and professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, and throughout her career has focused on statistics, design and evaluation of professional development and K-16 education of English learners. In recent years, however, she has become a go-to resource in higher ed media on the issue of presidential searches at public universities, a topic which she has researched extensively.

When she read my statements regarding secret searches, Wilde was generous enough to share her insight and guidance. Impressed by the depth of her knowledge, I knew I had to feature her in proF – not only to highlight her career and the incredible work she’s done, but also to draw attention to this larger issue of the university executive hiring process. In the past decade, more and more universities have begun delegating the work of hiring to external search firms, which often advocate for keeping the process secret from faculty and staff. Wilde’s research sheds light on the increasing use of these firms, their benefits and drawbacks and the potential consequences of secret searches for university presidents and other top administrators. (Check out Judith’s most recent op ed, on the use of campus police in secret executive searches, for Inside Higher Ed.)

Like most academics, Wilde’s career has taken an unexpected path to where she is today. Her undergraduate major at Scripps College (a small women’s college in Claremont, California) was European Thought and Culture – about as far as one can get from statistics. “While the degree may be really esoteric, what the school really did was teach me how to think,” she says of her time at Scripps. “And it really helped me being at a women’s college to be more willing to get out there and do things.”

Wilde went on to a master’s in secondary education from Claremont Graduate School, though was unable to find a teaching position in her chosen home of Albuquerque, New Mexico. A subsequent job at the University of New Mexico working with a statistics professor sparked a new passion. Despite a lifelong distaste for math, Wilde fell in love with the practicality of statistics. “I didn’t go for math, because I couldn’t see the importance,” she says. “But with statistics, I could understand why I was doing it.” Eventually, she completed her PhD in Educational Foundations (research, evaluation, statistics, assessment) at UNM.

Wilde’s interest in the executive search process came via her longtime friend and collaborator Jim Finklestein, a qualitative researcher and fellow professor (emeritus) in the Shar School at George Mason. While conducting research for a study on university presidents serving on corporate boards, Finklestein received a question from a reporter on presidential compensation – an area he had not previously studied. “So that got him thinking that maybe he should look at it,” Wilde says. “And I helped Jim set up the plan for doing that research and helped him analyze it.” As the two delved deeper into their research, Wilde began to collect and study data. “We started getting questions like, ‘How do these contracts come about? How do presidents get hired?’” she says, which led them to their research on search firms and secret searches.

Wilde and Finklestein conducted two separate studies – one on presidential contracts and the other on search processes and the use of search firms. “From August 2015 to January 2016, we looked at the Chronicle of Higher Education and pulled out every ad for president, vice president, provost or chancellor, and gave it to [our graduate student assistant, who was also an attorney] to do FOIA requests on,” she explains. The FOIA requests asked universities for proposals they had received from search firms, their responses and any resulting contracts or agreements. Working by necessity with public universities only, they gathered a sample of 61 searches completed by 21 search firms. To get more data, they analyzed public numbers from the AAU as well as other sources. Word about their work began to spread, and Wilde and Finklestein became regular consultants for journalists and frequent presenters at various conferences.

Currently, the two are finishing a new study that builds upon this previous work. “One of the questions we were frequently asked was, ‘Are search firms being used more now than they used to be?’” Wilde explains. “And our hunch was to say yes, but we had no data.” So Finklestein delved into the Chronicle of Higher Education archive, first looking at public university ads seeking a president or chancellor, and then following up to determine whether a search firm was used. As they suspected, the data showed a huge increase in the use of search firms. “In 1975-76, it was not more than 2%,” Wilde says. “In 2015-16, it was 92%,” with the biggest increase coming between 1995 and 2005.

This begs the question: why are more universities using search firms than ever before? Do they yield better results? And why do search firms so often require secrecy? “The search firms will tell you very strongly that this is the way you get the best candidates,” Wilde says. “And they will say ‘We, the search firms, can do all kinds of things for you that you can’t do on your own.’ It may well be true. However, they claim that the search has to be secret in order to get the very best candidates.” The justification many give for secrecy, she explains, is that presidents may not want their current university to know they’re seeking another position, as in some cases this can result in a loss of trust. But the downside of secret searches is that faculty and staff at a president’s new institution may also lack trust in someone who was hired without their input.

As for the question of whether search firms are a better option than a university-led search? Wilde’s research has made her doubtful, mainly because search firms often don’t go far enough in vetting potential candidates. “We find that a large proportion of the – I’ll use the term loosely – ‘contracts’ between the search firm and university are really informal letters of agreement, written by the search firm on their letterhead that say, ‘Great, we’re going to do this search for you,’” she says. “And they’ll list what they’ll do and that’s it – that’s the agreement. So there’s little definition to due diligence or other facets of the search.”

Typically, search firms will only look at publicly available sources, Wilde says, which means they don’t often speak with a candidate’s previous employers. She cites one incident reported to her in which a search firm was used to hire a university financial officer who was subsequently caught embezzling and fired. As it turned out, the person in question had previously been fired for the same offence – a major piece of information the search firm missed. Moreover, Wilde notes that there have been several stories in recent years about university presidents stepping down or being fired for various reasons. One high profile case was that of Shirley Collado, who was named the president of Ithaca College in February 2017. Previous allegations of sexual abuse made against Collado by a patient under her care nearly 20 years before were not revealed. The Ithaca College search that hired Collado began as an open process, but was closed a few weeks later under the justification that the college was responding to feedback from candidates and the search firm.

While it seems that search firms do not necessarily yield better results, there are other reasons for their increased popularity, Wilde explains, namely the preponderance of corporate executives now serving as trustees. “It used to be that the board of trustees was made up of local businessmen who wanted to support the school. That’s really not the case anymore. It is more and more CEOs and big-name people and potential donors,” she says. “They don’t know about searches. So having somebody on the outside come in . . . seems very much to their benefit.” Those who have worked in a corporate environment are also used to working with search firms, she says, as they are common in the business world. Likewise, coming from that environment, trustees may not see any issue with secrecy.

On the topic of secrecy, I asked Wilde about a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which suggested that the #metoo movement might help put an end to secret searches. Unfortunately, she says, “I think that’s an overly optimistic view.” The movement could, however, influence the way search firms operate. “I think it’s more likely that search firms will improve the due diligence portion of their search,” she says. Her hope is that if search firms must be used, they can work in tandem with the university: the search firm can be helpful at the start in terms of narrowing down the pool and making suggestions, but the university should then take more control of the later stages. Universities can set the terms, she notes, by clarifying their expectations from the beginning. “The contract needs to be written by the university and needs to be very specific,” she says, so the allocation of responsibility and the extent of due diligence is clear to all.

Even if search firms improve due diligence and transparency, there remains the issue of cost. Wilde explains that firms will either charge a fixed price, hourly price, or a percentage of the president’s first year of compensation (a problematic practice, to say the least). There is also travel reimbursement and additional fees and services (items not often included in the original contract), all of which can add up to hefty sums, particularly for public universities that rely on state funding. “We know from a separate study – from the data that one reporter from the state of Ohio gave us – that Ohio across 10 years spent $25 million on search firms,” Wilde states, noting that this wasn’t just on presidential hires. Due to these exorbitant costs, Illinois has limited the use of search firms to presidential searches only, and New York is looking to follow suit.

And then there’s that sticky issue of some search firms taking a percentage of a president’s first year of compensation. While no study has been done assessing the effect of this practice on hiring trends, it raises the question of whether these search firms might be biased in favor candidates with the highest earning potential – namely, white men. It is worth noting, however, that Wilde’s research does not indicate that the use of search firms has been an obstacle for women in higher ed. “What we found is that the percentage of women being hired for a presidency in 1975-76 was 5%, and in 2015-16 it was 29%. So there is a larger percentage being hired,” she says. “However, when I break that down and look at it by search firm vs. no search firm, there doesn’t seem to be a huge difference.”

Clearly, the issue of presidential (and other executive-level) searches in academia is a thorny one that has changed drastically in recent decades. As Wilde made clear throughout our conversation, there is plenty of room for improvement. More research is essential, though Wilde notes that search firms have begun claiming ownership of all data in their contracts – making studies like hers all the more difficult. And while she and Finklestein aren’t planning to publish their studies in academic journals, they do continue to raise awareness through the media as often as possible. “I think a lot of it is just getting people to think about this,” she says. “And maybe that’s where the #metoo movement is important. It’s got people thinking. So now regardless of what a search firm says, people [perhaps especially women] are going to want more due diligence.”

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