Paying for potential

Hired search firms find leaders for colleges nationwide.

by Brian Edwards

Finding an executive-level administrator to fill an open position at a university comes at a cost.
Some officials say schools lack means to conduct large-scale searches to find the perfect fit, which can take months and lag on for even longer if candidates don’t accept an offer.
So nationwide, colleges turn to companies to track down and vet candidates, in order to expedite what can otherwise be a long and tedious process. By mining a deep network of contacts, a search firm can target a handful of potential hires in a sliver of time.
But some consider search firms — which typically charge one-third of the candidate’s estimated salary, or the median of about $98,000 at the University of Minnesota — too expensive.
The University came under heavy media scrutiny for their use of search firms in hiring both former athletics director Norwood Teague, who resigned last summer after admitting to sexually harassing two female coworkers, and Chief Information Officer Scott Studham, who stepped down one month later. 
Public records requests showed Teague and Studham had complaints lodged against them prior to their arrival at the University.
But search firms tend not to request that information during the vetting process.
Instead of digging deep into candidates’ pasts, firms typically ask potential hires to disclose any previous complaints against them, said
Kurt Rakos, a co-founder and partner at Skywater Search Partners, a Minnesota recruitment firm. If the candidates disclose nothing, he said, the firms take their word for it.
Despite criticism from the public as well as state and University officials, President Eric Kaler announced last month the school will use a search firm to find its next athletics director. His announcement came two months after he said the University was leaning toward conducting its own search.
The benefits of using a search firm, like providing a wide and diverse pool of candidates, outweigh the costs, Kaler said.