iven the increasing competitive pressures and financial
challenges facing universities across North America, most
academic administrators recognize that strong and effective
leadership is a key ingredient for institutional success. Yet,
while there has been a proliferation of writing on the topic
of what effective academic leadership entails, relatively little
scholarly attention has been paid to the selection process
for academic leaders. Are there certain kinds of processes or
methodologies that are more likely to result in the selection
of more successful academic leaders?
Over the last decade, the procedures governing senior academic searches at
York University, where I served as a dean and then as provost from 2003
to 2012, have changed considerably. The key driver behind this evolution
has been a widely shared desire at the university to improve the reliability
and the validity of the academic search process by imparting a greater
sense of discipline and rigour.
Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, senior academic leaders
at most North American universities were selected on a consensus-based,
collegial model. The overarching priority in this model is to select an
effective academic leader who enjoys broad support among the faculty
members of the relevant academic unit. With this in mind, the selection
procedure was structured to provide the opportunity for all interested
faculty members to meet and interact with potential candidates and to
form an opinion about their suitability for the position. In some cases,
faculty members were permitted to vote on their preferred choice for
president or dean. While the governing body of the university made the
ultimate appointment, these faculty opinions, taken as a whole, were for
all intents and purposes the key determinant in the selection process.
For example, procedures for decanal searches at York and many other
universities often required the creation of a search committee, with a majority of the members elected by the faculty council and full-time faculty
members. The search committee would consult with members of the
relevant academic unit about criteria to guide the identification and selection of candidates. Based on that input, as well as its own deliberations, the
committee approved a “position description” that included the responsibilities associated with the position and the qualifications needed in the next
academic leader. The committee would consider potential candidates in
light of that position description and eventually identify the top three to
five candidates and invite these individuals for a campus visit.
The campus visit would involve candidates making a public presentation to the faculty (and usually also to staff and students), as well as a
meeting with the committee and with other interested members of the
community. Following the campus visits, those who met with, or heard
from, the various candidates, were invited to provide their confidential
written feedback and comments to the committee. Based on the committee
members’ own assessments, as well as the confidential feedback, the committee would recommend to the president or board which candidates
were deemed qualified for the position and in what rank order.
This process was intended to lead to the appointment of effective
academic leaders who could promote the best interests of the faculty.
But the way the process was structured made it extremely difficult for a
candidate to be appointed who didn’t enjoy broad support among the
faculty as a whole, even if they were otherwise extremely well qualified
and would undoubtedly have been successful in the post.
Of course, it is axiomatic that any effective academic administrator
must come to enjoy broad faculty support in order to lead effectively. The
question, though, is whether in striving to achieve this laudable goal, the
traditional model for senior academic searches gave undue weight to subjective assessments based on limited evidence, resulting in less effective
leaders than would have emerged from a more evidence-based process.
Frailty of human judgment and intuition
In recent years, Dale Campbell has analyzed the comparative validity of
different selection methods, and the findings suggest that personal interviews, particularly when they are unstructured, loose and discursive, are
among the least effective methods for candidate selection (“Your Next
Leader,” Community College Journal, June-July 2009). As Neville Bain and
Bill Mabey explain ( The People Advantage, Purdue University Press, 1999),
unstructured interviews are “prone to biases of subjectivity and prejudice
and there is evidence that judgments may be made very quickly on limited
data.” They report that unstructured interviews rank only slightly ahead
of references or graphology (the study of handwriting) in terms of validity,