When Presidential Finalists Visit, It’s the Campus’ Time to Shine

You have selected finalists and your presidential search is nearly complete. The search committee, board, and campus should understand that, at this stage, candidates are interviewing you as much as you are interviewing them. It is your job to sell your institution and convince the few remaining candidates that it is the right place for them.

Roll out the red carpet. Make candidates feel welcome and provide as much information and support before and during the campus visit as reasonable, so that each can make the most informed decision possible. Finalist candidates want to be recruited now more than in the past. They have a strong desire to learn about the culture and the campus in order to make an informed decision if offered the job.

Following are a few best practices for finalist visits on campus-they are rules of thumb that apply to searches that do not require strict confidentiality. At the end of the article, I provide additional thoughts on searches that require complete confidentiality and thus typical campus visit practices do not apply.

Pre-visit Preparation

  • Announcing Finalists: Prior to finalist visits, the search committee will introduce candidates to the larger community via a press release or presidential search website. Candidates should be prepared for a search to go public and given the courtesy and time to inform their home campuses beforehand. The less time there is between the public announcement and the campus visits the better, as this will reduce the window of time candidates must answer questions or field concerns from current employers or other parties outside the search.
  • Media and PR: Ensure that candidates understand in advance what forms of media will be present and used during the visit. Will there be student newspapers expecting access, live streaming video, or local TV reporters? Give your visitors time to prepare for different audiences and outlets.
  • Details: At this stage of the process, candidates often seek much more detailed information than was accessible earlier in the search. Is there information that was not readily available to the wider pool of candidates that would be helpful and appropriate for finalists to have? Some examples are detailed financial reports, enrollment projections, and campaign or fundraising documents. What does the candidate need to know to round out the picture and make a fully informed decision? Are there any “LUST” (“Leaky Underground Storage Tanks”) issues like pending lawsuits, structural deficits, key personnel changes pending, or accreditation concerns? There shouldn’t be any surprises when he or she arrives on campus.
  • Family, etc.: At the finalist stage, candidates’ decisions are heavily influenced by family needs and concerns. Consider spouses, partners, and children in your planning, recruiting efforts, and outreach. While it may not be appropriate or legal to inquire directly about specific personal matters (and search committee members must educate themselves on interviewing and hiring laws and practices), most candidates will have readily shared information about family priorities during the course of their recruitment. Does the partner or spouse require employment? If there are school-aged children, what are the options for public and private schools? What about churches or other affiliations important to the family? Schools, places of worship, and local employers can be built in to visits as a means of helping candidates evaluate important family issues related to their job search.

Candidates on Campus

  • Personal Touch: Part of rolling out the red carpet is making candidates feel at home. For instance, provide a gift basket in the hotel room with a school t-shirt, coffee mug, campus map, and other items that make the candidate feel special, welcome, and wanted.
  • Meetings with Constituents: The search committee is likely made up of individuals who represent the entire campus constituency-including, but not limited to, trustees, faculty, staff, students, alumni, and community members. Involve the internal and external community as much as possible. Give them a chance to meet candidates whether in open forums or small group settings. Trustee involvement throughout this stage is critical. At least one meeting between each candidate and the full board or representative group is essential.
  • Campus Ambassadors: Be thoughtful about who will represent your institution on campus tours, during community engagements, and in regards to transportation. Candidates can learn a lot during these times, and you want your best ambassadors representing your institution.
  • Rest and Relaxation: Give candidates a rest. Build time into the schedule for them to catch a breath or do some thinking and preparation. It will be greatly appreciated.
  • Logistics: Campus visits can be exhausting and overwhelming. The logistics of the visit should be managed by representatives from the institution or search committee, so that candidates can focus on getting to know the campus and its leaders. Candidates have no control, in many cases, over whether they can get from one meeting to the next on time. Make it easy on them by handling transportation, providing an umbrella, or having a golf cart handy. And make sure they drink plenty of water; Dehydration is one cause of candidate fatigue.

After the visits

  • Feedback Loop: Give constituents the opportunity to provide feedback. Each will want to feel heard and this can be accomplished in a couple of ways. The search committee member representing each key constituency may be charged with delivering input to the trustees or decision-making body on behalf of the entire group. Alternatively, each individual may provide feedback via an online/anonymous survey. The board or search committee will want to make an informed decision after carefully weighing the feedback of the community.
  • Timely Process: Ensure that things proceed at a good pace and that a decision is made soon after visits. Schedule finalist visits as close together as possible. Have a predetermined plan as to when a decision will be made and an offer extended. The more time that goes by, the greater the risk that candidates’ interest will wane and you might lose them to other opportunities.

A Note on Privacy
Much of the above advice also applies to searches that are conducted with extreme confidentiality. In many cases today, leading candidates will not consider a position unless their interest is kept private. If so, full campus visits are impossible. The group of interviewers will be narrowed to the search committee, board of trustees, and possibly other individuals either on campus or externally on a very limited basis, all of whom shall be aware of and adhere to confidentiality. Each search committee member will have the task of representing his or her constituency with little input from the group. The ultimate hiring decision will usually fall to the trustees, and secrecy around that decision is essential.

To get a feel for the campus, candidates may want to explore on their own, discreetly. While they will want to be anonymous, they will also want to see the school when it is in session. Therefore, it is best to schedule outside of holidays or breaks in the term.

About the Author
Ann Yates was a consultant in the education practice of the executive search firm Witt/Kieffer, based in Minneapolis.

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