Sir David Watson
The widespread use of headhunters to recruit and select university leaders may be doing more harm than good, even as the number of post-secondary institutions employing search firms continues to rise, a new report has revealed.
Sir David Watson, chair of higher education management in the University of London’s Institute of Education, compiled and analyzed data that reveal a strong and growing trend in advertisements for heads of UK universities involving the use of headhunters, or executive search agencies (ESAs).
His findings show no ESAs were involved in advertisements for top positions published in the Times Higher Education Supplement in 1986–1987, but that a decade later nine posts out of 16 advertised involved ESAs and jumped to 20 out of 21 by 2006–2007.
Over this period, Watson likens the ‘life cycle’ effect of ESAs to that of “a sophisticated drug. Initially headhunters had an enlivening and beneficial effect; subsequently the positive effects have worn off and damaging side-effects have emerged.”
His report, released in the summer 2008 issue of Engage, the magazine of the London-based Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, says the most serious side-effect of using headhunters is the “significant outsourcing of essential university responsibilities.”
Letting headhunters do the job that was once considered the hands-on duty of a governing board is leading to a kind of corporate de-skilling, he warns, while at the same time preventing candidates from making any real assessment of the nature of the post they may be facing, because of the confidentiality imposed by ESAs.
“The same can be said of the situation in Canada,” said James Turk, executive director of CAUT.
He warns that although executive search agencies once served a purpose by widening the pool of applicants, particularly from other sectors, the negative effects of “professionalizing” the recruitment of heads of universities now far outweigh the benefits.
“We’ve seen a significant increase in the number of presidential searches being handled by head-
hunters. And while they may establish a ‘stable’ of creditable applicants that’s initially wider than what a university search committee alone could muster, at the same time, these candidates are recycled over and over, and are kept at arms-length from any comprehensive understanding of the institution’s particular needs,” he said.
Watson calls the phenomenon of recycled applicants the “competitive waiting room,” and says it leads to a “tribe of individuals either permanently sitting in the waiting room or constantly being begged and/or seduced to be there.”
The use of headhunters in the U.S. has also garnered attention recently from William Bowen, the former president of Princeton University. In an article published in a March edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Bowen writes that managing a “successful succession” is the “number one responsibility of a governing board.” Despite that, he cautions that many boards seem ill-equipped to do so, and hand off the all-important responsibility to headhunters who are given too much authority with too little guidance.
Bowen says while using search firms can be helpful, their role should be limited to “producing lists of possible candidates, including some truly fresh names,” and not include shaping job descriptions, or even contacting candidates.
Watson has called for universities to “just say no” to ESA’s and recreate a “sense of shared responsibility” for recruitment across the post-secondary sector.