Using Executive Search Firms Should Not Be Considered a Given

To the Editor:

Despite what Mr. Perlmutter admits is the widely held view that executive search firms are “mercenaries,” he uncritically accepts that these are a fixture of the academic landscape (“Administration 101: Working With Executive Search Firms,The Chronicle, March 5). In fact, his piece only reinforces this view by recommending ways in which prospective administrators can gain the attention of headhunters and work hand-in-hand with them to advance their ambitions.

Mr. Perlmutter’s advice, while perhaps informed by personal experience, glosses over the facts of the executive search business. We recently completed a study of the contracts between 61 public universities and executive search firms for presidential and provost searches. Our findings, based solely on a review of documents we obtained through an exhaustive set of open records requests, suggests that the contractual obligations of a search firm may fall well short of the commonly held views of the services and value they are perceived to provide.

Other than providing for the education of their students, perhaps no other set of decisions is more important to the future of our universities than the hiring of its future leadership. Yet, for no other reason than what seems to be convenience, both governing boards and university administrators have chosen to outsource this critical function to a for-profit industry. As Mr. Perlmutter notes and our research documents, these firms are well paid. And, while they certainly want their clients to be satisfied, their primary obligation is neither to the client institution or the candidate — it’s to their bottom line.

This is a multibillion-dollar industry. This year, the nonprofit and government sector is projected to grow my 19 percent. Higher education will be a very significant part of that growth. We should ask ourselves if this is the best investment of our limited resources.

James H. Finkelstein
Professor Emeritus of Public Policy
Schar School of Policy and Government
George Mason University

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