Archive for March, 2015

DetectiveIf you serve on a dean search committee, I have some advice that you cannot afford to ignore.  Advice that comes from personal experience – as a committee member, as a former candidate and as a faculty member.

This advice starts with a story.     A colleague from another university was ranting about how his university had been hoodwinked by their new dean.   From my colleague’s perspective, their new dean turned out to be a fraud – someone who during the interview process had presented himself as a collaborative leader who fully embraced faculty governance and transparent decision-making.    What really infuriated my colleague is that he had been a member of the dean search committee.   We both agreed that better reference checking would have headed off this disaster during the search process.

When calling references, here are some suggested lines of questioning:

  1. When calling references use the self-described leadership style presented in the cover letter and ask whether or not it agrees with the references’s experience.  Following is a direct quote from the cover letter of my colleague’s current dean:”My leadership style has been described as participative.  I know the importance of listening and showing respect, of coaching rather than directing, and of finding the champion for a project and empowering him to succeed.”  From my colleague’s perspective, none of this description is remotely true.  Subsequent conversations with former faculty familiar with the new dean, confirmed the fanciful leadership style description.
  2. Be sure to call references, on and off the list, that are peers, direct reports and superiors.   No matter how strong the candidate appears on paper, contact references that can give a 360 degree perspective on the candidate.   How does the candidate interact with peers in other colleges?   Do direct reports feel respected and part of a team?   How have past relationships with superiors progressed?    How did the candidate handle constructive criticism from prior directors?     Do not limit phone calls to people on the candidate’s reference list.
  3. When calling references be sure to probe self-described explanations for leaving a prior leadership role, particularly if the individual was in the role for a short period of time (4 years or less).   When a candidate takes time in their cover letter to explain an early departure from a leadership position, be sure to probe.     Again, get a 360 degree perspective.    Was the candidate effective in this prior role?    Was the candidate having problems that were unresolvable?     What did the candidate learn from this prior early departure?   Did they play a role in this departure?   I would suggest that if the candidate did not learn from the prior early departure, then there most certainly is a problem.

The Dean Search Committee must be permitted to call references and there must be agreement on how the committee will handle the feedback.    Many search firms will attempt to do the reference calling themselves and often will discourage the committee from placing calls.     Many search committees will create standardized “vanilla” questions for reference calls.     My experience is that these are of little use.   You must develop individualized reference call questions for each candidate – building on key dimensions of the candidate’s cover letter and CV.     Failure to do so may mean years with a “dean from hell”.    Just ask my colleague!

– from the pen of Dr. Percy Trappe


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