I started a new job this spring. After a long search in a tough market, I landed my dream job as a senior professor and administrator at a top research university – a university that did not retain a headhunter for its search.

Talks at other schools had progressed to first or second interviews before fizzling, and they fizzled due to the ineptitude of the universities’ search firms. The headhunters deserve a whipping, and this column administers ten lashes.

Capable academics want to connect with institutions where they can make a positive difference and advance the institutions’ missions. Search firms really desiring to help make these connections should:
  1. Answer every application and every inquiry. You have not answered my letters re the last cool job you posted. I give up on you – I don’t respond to your firm’s most recent posting – and you miss the chance to bring your client a qualified candidate. Too expensive to answer every message, you say? Sorry, this is the business you chose to be in. Act professionally. And join the 21st century: Most replies can be automated.
  2. Prep search committees for (phone) interviews. The phone interview is a blunt tool, and not many know what it’s for. Few interviewers, either at universities or at search firms, can articulate exactly what they hope to accomplish in a phone interview. Lack of agenda plus the inability to see body language can easily add up to bad impressions on both sides. Coach clients on conducting videoconference and campus interviews too, and assert yourself when necessary. It’s troubling when a committee commits gaffes and illegalities, and doubly so when the supposedly knowledgeable headhunter is right there in the room.
  3. Prep candidates for interviews. Tell us about the culture of the school, whether the search committee are experienced or novices at faculty/administrator searches, who tends to dominate discussions, and whose biases should be watched out for.
  4. Help your client structure the search process and stick to a timeline. You know universities are not good at this. It is what you, as business people, are supposed to bring to the table. So why is it that neither you nor I can name a search that finished on time, at any university?
  5. Keep applicants informed of the progress of the search. Common courtesy, right? But less common than we’d like. And I don’t mean simply calendar progress. If interviewing a few applicants causes the committee (understandably) to change their minds about the kind of candidate they want, tell us that too – before eliminating us from the running or canceling the search. After all, we crafted our cover letters to match the originally advertised criteria. A chance to refocus our letters benefits everybody.
  6. Be there. An on-campus interview for a peach of an administrative post. The headhunter tells me, “Sorry I can’t be there that day. Don’t worry, you’ll do fine.” Turned out there were two faculty factions looking for very different characteristics in a new administrator, and faction members didn’t sport identification badges. I gave what we might call the right answer to a vocal member of the wrong group. Later the headhunter said, “I knew who’s who. If I’d been there we could have handled it together.”
  7. Refrain from writing “this fine institution” when it’s a turnaround job. When your communications are dishonest, you lose the respect of people who know the institution well. You waste time dealing with the wrong kinds of applicants. The purpose of your ad is to attract the right candidates, not to butter up your client. Do you know what candidates call ads that aggrandize client universities? We call them “clues.” (A more general honesty issue: Don’t imply to journalists that, e.g., the three-year average tenure of a dean is due mainly to the job’s increasing pressures. Own up that you and your peers have matched the wrong people with the jobs.)
  8. Send no “do not reply” emails. So disrespectful. Same to you, buddy.
  9. Avoid steering professionals to universities’ “online application systems.” 21st-century enterprises have AIs that parse well-structured CVs. Seasoned candidates send you well-structured CVs. It’s not that professionals are too stuck-up to deal with the same system used to hire receptionists. It’s just that the irrelevancies and duplicate work the systems demand lead us to expect the same from daily life at that university. A major turn-off.
  10. Remember, candidates are your future clients. As I, and others, move up the ladder and retain search firms on behalf of our universities, we remember who you are and how you behaved when we were candidates.
Headhunters, I’ve thought through how I could have better handled these interviews, and I want you to do the same. If only you knew how often your earnest, helpful, tech-savvy young assistants apologize to candidates for their principals’ (in)actions. Straighten up and fly right during this storm in US higher education. Decide to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.