In the perpetual tug-of-war between openness and confidentiality in searches for new college and university presidents, secrecy has been winning in a rout. Most recently, Florida passed a law exempting public college presidential searches from the state’s open records law, and Purdue University hired Mitch Daniels’s replacement on the same day the university announced its longtime president’s retirement.
The recent search for a new president at Pitzer College offers a counterpoint. In what faculty leaders and board members there agree was a too-rare triumph for shared governance these days, the independent California college gave its entire full-time faculty and representative groups of staff members and students the opportunity to meet with three finalists and weigh in on the final choice.
More than half of the college’s roughly 100 eligible faculty members chose to participate in the process that led to the December hiring of Strom Thacker, dean of the faculty and vice president for academic affairs at Union College.
“We’ve modeled what a more open search that’s acceptable to the board, faculty, staff and students looks like,” said Will Barndt, an associate professor of political science at Pitzer. “And having a more open search sets up both our new president and our college to have a healthy and open relationship.”
The Pitzer process represented a swing of the pendulum from the last presidential search there. In 2015, Pitzer’s hunt for a leader stoked anger among faculty members and students who felt underrepresented on the search committee. Near the end of the process, the college set up a second committee with more employee and student members to meet with and provide feedback on the three finalists.
Donald Gould, a Pitzer trustee who led the 2015 search and was chairman of its board when the 2022 search began, said he emerged from the earlier search “feeling there would be benefits to a more open process.”
That inclination was reinforced by the very strong feelings of Pitzer’s faculty, said Thomas Brock, the alumnus (and trustee) Gould chose to head the search committee this time around.
“There were explicit demands from the faculty that it be an open process,” said Brock, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College. He and Gould participated in faculty meetings where the issue was discussed “to understand their point of view.”
Many faculty members believed that the college had undermined its historical embrace of shared governance in recent years, citing the controversial 2014 dismissal of the dean of faculty and the closed nature of the 2015 presidential search, among other things. The faculty’s general ask for the new search, said Barndt, was that it be more open; more specifically, “we wanted an opportunity for every faculty member to be able to meet with the candidates.”
Pitzer officials didn’t balk: “We didn’t see any reason to oppose what they were asking for,” Brock said. But suspicion lingered. “There was tremendous skepticism among faculty around whether we really meant it. They thought we would try to elude their meaningful participation. I was caught off guard; I hadn’t realized that such distrust had evolved between the faculty and the administration and board.”
Pushback From Search Professionals
Not everyone was enthusiastic about a more open search, though. As the Pitzer board interviewed search firms to administer the process, most of them “advised against” opening up the search, Brock said. “Based on their experience, well-qualified people would not apply for the role if it was going to be open.”
That made Brock “nervous,” he acknowledged, but he and Gould persevered and hired WittKieffer to help with the search.
Suzanne Teer, the deputy managing partner at WittKieffer who worked with Pitzer, said she and others at the firm “had some views” about the college’s choice, which she declined to share with Inside Higher Ed. She remembers saying to its officials, “‘At the end of the day, you make the decision and we’ll help you.’ We focused on laying out some of the potential consequences and tradeoffs,” including the reality that “there will be some candidates who will be comfortable with that and certain candidates who won’t.” This is especially true for sitting presidents, she said, because “the minute word is on the street that they’re pursuing another opportunity, things can go south for them.”
Pitzer took several steps to minimize that possibility. First, it “made decisions about the final stages of the process early on,” so candidates “had a chance to get used to it, and we weren’t springing it on them,” Teer said.
Second, it went to “extraordinary” lengths, she said, to try to balance the desires of faculty and staff members for more involvement with doing its best to protect candidates’ identities.
The members of the search committee, which included six trustees, four faculty members, two staff members and a student, opted to maintain control of the process through the selecting of three finalists. At that point, the process would be opened to give faculty, staff and students access to the candidates.
All tenure-line professors and contract instructors who’d worked for the college for at least five years were eligible to participate. Staff members and students were represented by their formal elected councils. The search committee required all employees and students who wished to participate to commit to attending the presentations of all three finalists, so they’d have a basis for comparison.
And all participants were asked to read a “set of principles” about protecting the privacy of the candidates, in which they were asked not to write about the candidates or to discuss them outside the confines of the meeting spaces Pitzer set up. Participants in the search process had to check an online box saying they had read the principles, but “we tried to use the honor code—it was not enforced in blood, to appeal to people’s better nature,” said Brock, the search committee chair.
The administration’s decision not to “use legalistic nondisclosure agreements” and to “cut out some of that corporate NDA-speak was in and of itself a win,” Barndt said, a sign of “trusting faculty, staff and students enough.”
The strategy ultimately appeared to work: Teer, the search consultant, said she was only aware of one candidate who “opted out” of the process because of concerns about being outed as a candidate. Of course, some might have chosen not to apply at all.
Interactions With the Candidates
The faculty, staff and student constituent groups were all given time with the three finalists, and Pitzer officials gave each of the groups latitude to craft its own interview questions.
As the dates approached for faculty members to meet with the presidential finalists, Brock acknowledged some nervousness. “I feared things could go wrong,” he said, “that some rogue faculty member would dominate or say things that would be unhelpful.”
Barndt, the political science professor, said he had a bit of trepidation, too, though he considers the “cantankerous” faculty member an overly simplistic caricature. Ultimately, though, “if you want to be president of a liberal arts college, you’ve got to be able to deal with cantankerous faculty members. You want to see how a president responds to tough questions and to various personalities at a college.”
The tough questions did come, “by far the hardest questions any of the candidates got,” Brock said.
Virtually everyone involved in the Pitzer process described the same benefits to the relative openness of the search process, if in slightly different terms: a chance to see how candidates behaved in an environment that at least somewhat approximated the actual context in which they would work.
Think of the secretive search in which only a small cadre of trustees and others may meet with candidates in airport hotel conference rooms, and the candidates themselves get most of their information about the job and the institution from those trying to sell it to them.
“I’ve worked on presidential searches where they never stepped foot on campus,” said Teer of WittKieffer.
That wouldn’t have worked at a place like Pitzer that prides itself on meaningful shared governance, said Gould, the board chairman.
“If you want to be president here, and not just a generic college president somewhere, this is who we are. A more open search allows the candidate to interact with the college—to see what the college is actually like, at least for a moment.”
Pitzer built out a password-protected web portal where it posted all relevant information about the three finalists and enabled those who had opted to participate in the process to share their views about the candidates. (At one point, Brock said, the college had to restructure the online survey form because it “didn’t offer enough space” for a few faculty members to share all their opinions on the candidates.)
Feedback from the collective constituents was largely positive for two of the three candidates who “ran neck and neck,” Brock said—and the trustees’ choice came down to those two. The board ultimately chose Thacker, who, perhaps not surprisingly, felt good about the process that ended in his selection.
“For me as a candidate, I see real positives,” he said. “You get a better sense of the people you would be working directly with. When you only meet a few key people, it makes it hard to visualize success and harder to get a sense of what a place is like.
“You also get a much better sense of the culture and of the community,” he added. “There are things you can pick up on in group and individual meetings that you wouldn’t have any idea about if it was a closed search.”
Most importantly, Thacker said, the process gave the many constituents a president ultimately needs to work with and serve a sense of “ownership” in the selection process.
“A new president can get buy-in, which is convincing people to go along,” he said. “Ownership is much more important—bringing people into the decision-making process to begin with. If you’re getting really meaningful input from a wider range of people, the decision’s likely to be a better one, and the person is more likely to have support when they arrive.”
Faculty leaders agree. “I’m hopeful that this will set the president up for success,” said Juanita Aristizábal Peraza, an associate professor of modern languages, literatures and cultures who was on the search committee. “The way this community is going to welcome the new president will be completely shaped by the way in which he was introduced to us.”
Implications for Others
What worked at a small liberal arts college like Pitzer “may not necessarily translate to a 25,000-person campus,” Teer, the search consultant, acknowledged. The more people involved, the greater the chance someone might upset the delicate balance Pitzer found between “maintaining the commitment to an open process while also ensuring the confidentiality of the candidates.”
But at a time when trust between administrators, boards and faculty and staff members appears to be fraying many places in higher education, “part of what we’ve done here is reinventing some of the important practices of shared governance,” said Barndt, the political scientist.
“That, in and of itself, is a win, both for the college and beyond.”