Secrets of the Search Process for Top Campus Leaders

If you
mention the
name of the school only
in the beginning and end
of the letter but the rest is
‘all about me,’ you won’t
make it past the first

Dr. Katherine HaleyDr. Katherine Haley

My father, a lawyer, always me I could be anything I want to be,” said Dr. Katherine Haley, an executive search consultant with Witt/Kieffer. 

Realizing she loved school, Haley took her dad’s advice and became a professor. At age 30, “I told someone I wanted to be a president” at a liberal arts college. She got her wish.

Before joining the search firm, she served as the first woman president of both Gettysburg College PA founded in 1830, and Whittier College CA founded in 1887.

In her impressionistic keynote address at the Universityof Nebraska conference on Women in Educational Leadership held in Lincoln in October 2012, Haley led a woman’s journey through higher education leadership.

Status of women

Witt/Kieffer is an executive search firm specializing in higher education, where Haley is one of 15 consultants. In her five years there, she has acted as the “gateway,” conducting searches for provosts, deans and presidents. In her 25 presidential searches, about “40% of my hires have been women,” she said.

Having switched from direct leadership as a president to matchmaking, Haley sees her new role as a way to give back to higher education. Her work is sorely needed.

According to the ACE study of top leaders The American College Presidency 2012, women have made minimal progress in achieving the top job over the past 25 years.

Women Presidents in Higher Education




Public colleges, universities



Private colleges & Universities



All colleges and universities



When broken down by gender, the demographics of those in the presidencies reveal many differences:

Presidents’ Demographics by Gender







Now married






Never married



Has children



Earned PhD or EdD



Was CAO/Provost




She said the average salary for women presidents is $233,000 while their male counterparts average $250,000.

Both women and men can successfully lead academic institutions, but men have had the job historically and women have not being seen in the role. When Haley headed Whittier College, she was mistaken for the president’s wife. “I am the president of the college. My husband is 6’ 4” and I’m not. We stood next to each other and my assistant said, ‘I’d like to introduce you to the president of Whittier’ and they all looked up at him.”

Women who know the terrain are more likely to seek the job. But many are refusing to toss their hat in the ring because of the job’s demands, with increased pressure on finances and accountability. “It’s no fun,” they often say.

Candidate preparation

Just as Haley understands the academic culture and what the hiring school wants in its new leader, candidates for the top job must be prepared for what they’ll encounter.

Based on its long experience, Witt/Kieffer has developed four leadership components needed for a successful presidency. In addition to having a well-cultivated self-awareness, a leader also needs a vision, masterful execution and a real way with people.

Today’s finalists for the top job all are competent, qualified and accomplished, so the non-verbals seal the deal. Initial interviews generally occur in airports, with eight to 10 candidates getting one hour each to impress the search committee enough to be invited to campus. If you were a fly on the wall, what would you see?

Male candidates have a uniform. They all wear conservative suits, ties and no jewelry. Women are not so lucky.They are thoroughly scrutinized, including their clothes, makeup, hair and jewelry.

Haley told of a very well-qualified woman candidate for provost. But she made the mistake of wearing a set of bangley bracelets to the interview; her jewelry was so distracting that it literally cost her the job.

Other fashion faux pas that derail otherwise very competent women include clothes that are too tight and skirts that are too short. Only in the South is it acceptable to wear lots of makeup and hair spray.

For an example of what scrutiny women candidates face, consider Hilary Clinton. Haley showed a recent photo of her; she’s wearing no makeup and has literally let down her hair. Critics have complained of her new look. Haley said it flatly states: “I’m the Secretary of State, so bite me.

Understand the process

Candidates are encouraged to know their audience and context. Women, who build relationships with smiles, need to smile less in order to be taken seriously as a potential president. An ingratiating smile is not good.

The search process is like a cover letter; you need a thoughtful connection to the school. If you mention the name of the school only in the beginning and end of the letter but the rest is “all about me,” you won’t make it past the first cut.

Legally, search committees are forbidden to ask about a candidate’s personal life. Instead they ask, “Do you have any impediments to relocation?” The wise candidate then volunteers information on her partner and family.

In presidential searches, the partners of finalists are invited to interviews. They are scrutinized closely in social settings to check their manners so “they don’t embarrass us with donors.”

If the candidate’s partner is not involved in the search, committees see it as a troubling sign. One woman candidate admitted, “Well, I haven’t told my spouse…

”Being single can hinder a career, she said, whether it’s linked to sexual orientation, personal choice or other reasons.“ For some schools, it just won’t work. And we want it to work,” said Haley.

Male candidates are expected to provide a two-for-one. Entertaining is expected at least two to four nights per week, with the partner counted on to host the events.

Leadership how-to

Experience, networking, mentoring and relationships all create and sustain leadership. 

Men have always had connections, but women still need to help each other. Relationship building will make or break a leader. “You can’t be a leader unless you can work with people,” Haley said.

Other criteria for a successful candidate include having a doctorate and a record of success in leadership. Candidates must understand money and how to manage budgets.They need to know the tenure process and possess a broad array of credentials.

But things are changing. Today more presidents come from the advancement field and enrollment management. Some come from business or the military.

Shared governance means that the president has to work with others, especially the faculty, to get things done. Candidates must show how they’ve been able to put together a consensus project, build it and get others on board.

Presidents work with members of boards of trustees; most have lots of money and strong opinions on how the school should operate. Most presidents would rather have board members who work collaboratively, but they need to be able to work with many different types of people.

Women presidents have more stress around balancing work and family because the rules are not yet worked out for women in that job. Someone remarked to Haley’s husband, a distinguished professor of molecular genetics, “Oh, so you’re the trailing spouse.”

Being a president is a 24/7 position and women still remain a curiosity. “People will look in your grocery basket to see if you’re eating Twinkies,” Haley said.

Technology is changing the president’s role. At the University of Virginia, the board, full of powerful corporate people, worried that the school was not moving fast enough in online education, so they tried to oust President Theresa Sullivan. Ultimately they failed. That incident showed that many board members truly did not understand higher education. “It’s hilarious to think of the academy moving quickly,” said Haley.

Challenges from the for-profit arena may accelerate change. At one for profit, someone who clicks on its Website receives a call from the school within about 15 seconds.

When will the day come when women don’t need conferences on leadership? Haley showed a cartoon from 1992, touted as the Year of the Woman. It featured a disgruntled male saying, “Well, one more minute and the goddamn ‘Year of the Woman’ will be over.”

Even in 2012, when women are 57% of college and university students, they are only 26% of presidents. It appears that we still have a way to go.

Dr. Katherine Haley  

Santovec, Mary Lou. (2012, November). Secrets of the Search Process for Top Campus Leaders. Women in Higher Education, 21(11), p. 1-2.

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