Who Goes There?

How open should the search for a university president be, in terms of revealing the names of finalists to the campus community?  That question is the focus of a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article by a senior partner at an executive-search firm (March 15th issue, pp. 48-49).  

Although the author provides a useful overview of major approaches to handling this issue, he does not discuss three cutting-edge strategies that have emerged in the past couple of years.  Here they are:

Orchestral Audition Gambit (OAG):  This is the new gold standard for secrecy.  The distinctiveness of OAG is that not even the school’s board of trustees knows who the finalists are for the presidency.  These finalists are selected by a higher-education search firm and individually interviewed by the board, with candidates hidden behind a screen in a darkened conference room.  (Think of violinists auditioning for a position with a major orchestra.)  As the candidates answer questions, their speech is filtered through a voice-altering microphone.  

The identity of the candidate who is ultimately hired is kept secret for at least one year after he or she takes office.  During that period the new president does not appear on campus, working instead from an underground bunker in a nearby city or town.  Bowdoin College used the Gambit method to choose its current president, and by all accounts is very pleased with the outcome.   

Cloak-and-Dagger Search:  Institutions employing this approach identify and evaluate presidential candidates without notifying them that they are being considered, or even announcing to the public that a search is taking place.  Background information on individuals is gathered using surveillance techniques typically employed by international drug cartels and carried out by retired CIA operatives. 

Once the board of trustees has made its final decision, the “chosen one” is abducted from a parking garage, taken to a secure location, and informed that he or she can either accept the position of president or be “disappeared.”  The University of California System began using this approach in 2023.  Preliminary results look promising.  

Sunshine State Strategy:  The go-to method in Florida.  Whenever a presidential vacancy occurs in one of the state’s universities, Governor Ron DeSantis assumes the office without the public’s knowledge.  A local member of the Screen Actors Guild is hired by the school’s board of trustees, provided with an academic-sounding alias (e.g., Haydon Tittleton, Jr.), and presented to the campus community as president.  This approach has been so successful that South Carolina plans to adopt it and, not trusting its own governor, has arranged for Mr. DeSantis to use the NCAA’s transfer portal to switch states.  

MORAL OF THE STORY:  When it comes to presidential searches, the evidence is mounting that ignorance can indeed be bliss.