The Academic Job Search and the Internet

Brian Taylor

March 29, 2010

Last week three executive-search consultants—headhunters, as they are called—scheduled telephone interviews with me to conduct reference checks on candidates for senior administrative positions. I'm a reference for the candidates, all of whom have advanced to the stage of finalist, and the headhunters were "exercising due diligence" by investigating whether the candidates would be a good fit for the institution the consultants represented.

One of the consultants spent an unusually long time in the interview tiptoeing around what clearly was his real concern: whether the candidate had any skeletons in the closet that would come back to haunt the university.

After gently but somewhat awkwardly inquiring about whether there were any "controversies" that he should be aware of, the consultant finally blurted out: "Look, it's a lot different nowadays from when you and I came up through the ranks. In the old days there was no Internet. Today, anyone can Google a candidate and gather a whole range of information, but who knows how reliable or accurate the information is?"

Another headhunter told me that the real problem was that various constituents use information they glean from the Internet to further their own political objectives—even going so far as to sabotage the candidacy of one finalist because they favor another. "It's very frustrating," she said. "We are constantly doing damage control because committee members or even just other faculty on campus will dredge up what they believe to be damning information on one candidate or another."

Occasionally, she added, an entire search is aborted because of someone's Internet sleuthing. "People who engage in this kind of amateur detective work really end up shooting themselves in the foot," she said. "They do incredible damage to the institution. If they truly want to be helpful, they need to let the process take its course."

Of course, sometimes information obtained from a Web search can help prevent an institution from making a serious mistake. On a number of occasions, search committees at institutions where I have worked averted disaster by discovering via the Internet a potential problem with a candidate and then independently confirming the information.

In one instance, a department chair who was conducting a search for a junior faculty member discovered a news story revealing that the top candidate had been fired for sexual misconduct. After verifying that the information was true, the chair terminated the finalist's candidacy.

In another case, a candidate for a deanship had presented himself as a sitting dean at his home institution when, in fact, he had been forced to resign from that post six months earlier. Misrepresenting your credentials is a serious transgression, and that candidate, too, was eliminated from the pool once the facts had been verified.

Too bad it is often so difficult to separate fact from fiction on the Web. Just because it's been published doesn't make it true, even in a newspaper article. Exercising genuine due diligence on a candidate's background means thoroughly investigating information that seems disturbing or suspicious rather than simply trusting the source and assuming its validity. A thorough vetting may require numerous phone calls to parties in the know, but serious follow-through is essential to preserve the integrity of the search.

Most executive-search consultants are experts at the vetting process because their companies' reputations are at stake. They will contact several people who are not listed as references on the candidate's application—present and former supervisors, and even officials at previous institutions where the candidate once worked. They will also commission professional background investigations, which include verifying the candidate's earned academic degrees as well as conducting a complete credit history and a criminal-background check.

Proper due diligence also means carefully assessing the information obtained from conversations with "off list" references. A reference may be very negative about a candidate, but there may be a reason—the candidate and reference may have a longstanding personality conflict, or the two may have become professional rivals. Search committees and consultants must sort through the various narratives and determine, as much as is possible, the truth.

Some years ago during a search that I conducted for a leadership position, I spoke with the candidate's former dean, who proceeded to excoriate the candidate. The picture the dean painted was highly unflattering. Rather than accept his narrative at face value, I spoke with the provost at the same institution. She immediately made clear that the former dean had a vendetta against our candidate because of a bitter power struggle that had occurred some years before. I ended up hiring the candidate, with no regrets.

Vetting a candidate is a tricky business, and that's why search committees should resist allowing people from outside the committee to contaminate a search by producing damning information from the Internet. The responsibility for due diligence always lies with the committee—and with the search firm if one has been hired.

The Internet has affected academic recruiting in other ways, especially searches for senior administrators. In the days before the Web, an institution conducting a search for a new president, say, could quietly woo an official from a rival campus without anyone the wiser until very late in the process. Today, however, the names of finalists—and, often, even semifinalists—are posted on the Web and their candidacies instantaneously outed at their home institutions.

This development is good for openness, but it also has a downside: It can discourage some potentially excellent candidates from applying for fear of embarrassing their home institutions. Just last week, a vice president at an institution in the East called to ask my advice. She is being courted by a search firm for a college presidency and is interested in the job, but "terrified" that her president will "take it personally" that she is considering leaving. "I just don't know how to negotiate exploring the position without burning bridges here," she lamented.

In fact, she may not even have to rely on her president's casually picking the news up from the Internet. I know of several instances where the local newspapers have the names of university officials on Google Alert, which notifies you whenever a particular name appears online. By using that application, the hometown newspaper can potentially be the first to break the story locally when a university official becomes a candidate at another institution.

Needless to say, the Web has also had a positive effect on recruiting. Because so much information about an institution is now available on its Web site (and on other sites as well), candidates have much more opportunity to become thoroughly knowledgeable about the place. And candidates do seem to be better prepared for interviews than in the pre-Internet days—and we now expect them to be. In that way, the Internet has helped raise the bar in the search process.

In addition, more and more colleges are using the Internet to help them conduct first-rate searches.

Some committees construct elaborate Web sites devoted to the search. The site might include the names and short bios of committee members, an expanded version of the position description, the vitae and other materials of finalists, helpful institutional links that guide applicants to especially relevant Web pages within the university (strategic plan, master plan, budget, and so on), and external links to important or impressive attractions within the community or region. In that way, the Internet has become an invaluable recruiting tool.

When it comes to academic recruiting, the Internet itself is neutral; it is how we use it that potentially can be useful or destructive to the process. If we use it as a constructive tool, our searches become all the more effective and efficient. If we use it as a weapon, we potentially hurt ourselves, our candidates, and our institutions.

Gary A. Olson is provost and vice president for academic affairs at Idaho State University and co-editor, with John W. Presley, of "The Future of Higher Education: Perspectives From America's Academic Leaders" (Paradigm, 2009).