Few presidential searches fail the way Boise State’s did

The recent unsuccessful president’s search at Boise State University was among just 5 to 7 percent of executive searches that failed, the consulting firm responsible for the work said this week.

Rod McDavis, managing partner at Washington, D.C.-based AGB Search, said his firm has conducted about 500 executive searches over its eight-year history. Over that time, McDavis said AGB found success in about 93 percent of its searches.

“It happens in a few searches we’re involved with, it is not totally unusual,” he said. “We’re pleased that in the majority of searches, they come to successful conclusion. Ninety-three percent of the searches we’re involved with come to a successful conclusion.”

After interviewing a field of finalists, the State Board of Education voted May 16 to not offer the BSU job to any of the finalists, and to instead begin a new search — likely in the fall.

Through June 1, the State Board and BSU paid $101,484 for the search, including AGB’s fees, expenses and to cover costs associated with travel, lodging and public forums, a State Board spokesman said. The State Board was also due to send AGB a final, $28,000 payment, which would bring the total cost to nearly $130,000.

Judith Wilde, the chief operating officer and professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, said it is highly unusual for an executive search to fail.

“We haven’t seen that happen very many times,” Wilde told Idaho EdNews.

National statistics on search firms

Wilde has studied presidential searches for 10 years and reviewed more than 60 university contracts for such searches. Wilde said there has been surprisingly little research into the complex and mysterious world of higher education executive headhunters, despite the field ballooning into a $4 billion industry in the United States.

Wilde found the world of presidential searches to be less than transparent, noting that fewer than half of the institutions she studied used an open, competitive bid process to hire a headhunter.

She and a colleague also found many search firms didn’t provide detailed information about what universities receive in exchange for hiring a firm:

  • Fewer than half of the search firms did not spell out in contracts that they would provide outreach to candidates.
  • Just 30 percent of search contracts she reviewed specified they would develop advertising and conduct general background checks on the candidates.
  • Many search firm did not even provide formal contracts outlining what services they would provide. Instead, 40 percent of the searches were bound by a simple letter sent by the search firm and signed and returned by the university.

“The scope of services provided by the firms as part of their basic fee was underwhelming…,” Wilde and James H. Finkelstein wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education in November 2016.

After a decade’s worth of research, Wilde’s message to college and university leaders considering hiring a search firm is simple. Before signing anything, spell out — in specific detail in a formal contract — what the board or university expects to receive from a search firm.

“Make sure the agreement you have lists everything you want,’” Wilde said.

Idaho will use headhunters for five presidential searches

Idaho is in the middle of historic levels of turnover at its colleges and universities. Idaho State University and Lewis-Clark State College hired presidents this spring after hiring AGB Search. The first BSU search failed last month. This fall, the State Board plans to hire headhunters to conduct presidential searches for Boise State and University of Idaho.

Although total costs aren’t yet available, the combined cost of five executive searches could approach or exceed $500,000.

Wilde, who reviewed a copy of AGB’s contract with the State Board, said the contract for the failed search was among the better contracts she has reviewed. It stipulated what services would be provided, including due diligence. It specified that AGB would not participate in contract negotiations, and would not base its fee on the new president’s salary.

It also contained a few red flags that Wilde identified, including a confidentiality agreement. Wilde said a confidentiality agreement could mask that a search firm is recycling the same pool of failed candidates for each search it conducts.

“I would not call this a perfect contract, but I would say it’s at the better end of what we see,” Wilde said.

How the BSU search was done

In an interview with Idaho Education News, McDavis didn’t share any insights into how or why the Boise State search failed.

But McDavis did say AGB Search conducted a national search, advertised the opening, tapped into its database of 4,000 potential leaders, networked across the country, assembled a pool of 53 applicants and helped vet finalists through due diligence that included reference checks, degree audits and background checks.

At that point, McDavis said, AGB turned the process over to the local search committee and the State Board of Education.

“These are very important decisions, and the board has to feel like the candidate it chooses is the right fit for the university. We respect that decision by the way,” McDavis said. “We never question the motives of a board that doesn’t make a (hiring) decision, and our job is to find people we believe might be a good fit. Certainly, the people were well qualified.”

McDavis said AGB would have continued to help Boise State find a candidate if the State Board asked it to continue. However, a State Board spokesman said the search was considered complete May 16, when the Board voted to develop a request for proposal to engage in a new search.

The BSU/AGB contract included a warranty that AGB would assist in a follow-up search at no additional cost if a president was hired and left during the first year of employment. There was no similar warranty in the event that the State Board did not offer the job to any of the candidates.

In interviews after the BSU search, State Board President Linda Clark said she was satisfied with the search process but said “the outcome was not what we wanted.”

“We just didn’t find the right match for Boise State, really the perfect match to lead the institution forward,” Clark said June 1.


Clark Corbin

Get EdNews in your inbox

Weekly round up every Friday