Judith Wilde is chief operating officer and professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. James Finkelstein is professor emeritus of Public Policy at the Schar School.
The diminishing role of the campus community — administrators, faculty, staff and students — in presidential searches is a growing concern. One of the more common means of limiting their participation in selecting a new president is the growing use of secret searches.
For most of the last 50-plus years, the finalists in searches for public university presidents have come to campus to make public presentations and meet with the community and other stakeholders.
This public vetting allowed for both the candidate and the community to determine whether the candidate was a "good fit" for the campus. Even the principal of a major higher education search firm, Jan Greenwood, recently told Inside Higher Ed, "A known candidate is vetted in a more public manner, by the news media and people on campus. And that scrutiny can help protect a search firm by preventing a bad hire or from not getting necessary background information on a job candidate to the hiring committee."
Despite this admission, secret searches seem to have become more common. We have not collected data on the frequency of different types of searches (open, closed or secret). However, we do often see the claim that secret searches are increasingly necessary in order to protect the privacy of candidates and assuage their fear of reprisals should it become known they are in the job market. Advocates of this approach argue that this is especially true for sitting presidents who might fall out of favor with their governing board and perhaps even lose their job. We have even been told that the more transparent searches disadvantage women and other traditionally underrepresented candidates.
After an exhaustive search of the literature, we have found no empirical evidence to support these claims. In fact, both propositions seem counterintuitive, especially in light of our research, published in The Chronicle of Higher Education and elsewhere — specifically our study of search firm contracts. Here is our thinking.
Let us examine the idea that a sitting president would be harmed if it became known they were a finalist for another position. There seem to be four possible outcomes. The most obvious, of course, is that they are offered and accept the new position. Certainly, that does not seem to constitute harm to the individual. Alternatively, the job is not offered, or is not accepted, and the candidate continues in their current presidency. This status quo also seems benign.
That leaves two other options. One would be that when the governing board learns their president is a finalist on another campus, it makes a preemptive offer that incentivizes the president to stay. This is not unprecedented. In fact, it recently happened at Montana State University, where the current president was offered a nearly 50% raise and an increase in her deferred compensation plan to not accept another position. We would even be willing to suggest that if the sitting president is successful and a woman, ethnic minority or from another underrepresented group, this is an even more likely occurrence; we would be surprised if that candidate were not to receive an attractive counteroffer.
For the sake of argument, let us assume that a governing board loses confidence in their president upon learning that they are in the job market and decides to exercise its rights under the termination-without-cause clause of the contract. Based on our studies of presidential contracts, we know virtually all have what we have called a platinum parachute to cover such situations.
These clauses typically include a full year sabbatical at full pay, a tenured faculty position, a pre-determined faculty salary that is almost always higher than other senior faculty, a reduced teaching load, and other perks such as administrative support, a discretionary budget and graduate assistants. The bottom line is that while they may no longer be president, the individual and the governing board agreed in advance to a set of terms that would govern any situation for termination without cause. So even in that case, most presidents will still have a job and end up just fine.
It is possible that a governing board may want the president not only to step down but also to leave the university. It is not unprecedented to buy out a departing president's contract, including their tenure rights. These "exit agreements" can be quite lucrative or costly depending on where one sits. Auburn University's former president received a $4.5 million buyout when he left the institution this summer after what the school said were "extensive discussions" about its leadership. Under different circumstances, the University of Central Florida bought out the tenure rights of its president who had served for less than a year.
Neither of these cases involved a president who was in the job market. Nonetheless, it is clear presidents who may choose to resign early or are terminated without cause can pass go and collect far more than $200.
When a board guarantees the absolute protection of a candidate's privacy, it is at the expense of the other institution's ability to better plan for succession.
This leads to the fourth possible scenario. In the more than 300 presidential contracts we have reviewed over the past decade, only one included a financial disincentive to the president for being in the job market prior to the last year of their contract. However, even that unusual contract did not allow the governing board to terminate for cause if the president decided to leave early. It would be hard to imagine how such language could be binding.
But, if this were to happen, a president could always avail themselves of a legal remedy for breach of contract. It is very rare for a president to sue their board, although we do get occasional calls from attorneys whose clients are considering such a lawsuit. Most often, even the threat of the president suing their board results in a settlement.
Of course, knowing that your president is in the job market can be destabilizing. However, if we accept the American Council on Education's data that the terms of university presidents are getting shorter (which our own research supports, albeit with a slightly higher average of 7.8 years), what this really suggests is that governing boards should begin to take succession planning much more seriously given that turnover is not only more rapid than ever before but is inevitable. They should begin drawing up the plan on day one.
When a board guarantees the absolute protection of a candidate's privacy, it is at the expense of the other institution's ability to better plan for succession. Without prior warning, a president might only give a month or two of notice, leaving their current board having to name an interim and scramble to begin the search process.
In the end, the only ones to pay the price for secrecy are the colleges and universities of the sitting president. The candidates themselves have nothing to lose and quite possibly a great deal to gain.