Dispatch from Steve George

Steve George

April 26, 2011

Everyone who has a connection to Amherst is understandably curious about who might become our next president. Even given the search committee’s attempts to maintain confidentiality, it’s a good bet that we must be interviewing people for the job. A faculty colleague says, “Steve, you were out of town this weekend. You were probably doing presidential search interviews. Meet any good candidates?” That’s innocent enough, but my daughter Madeleine took it up a notch, attempting to catch me in an unguarded moment to get me to reveal one candidate’s gender. This was during a previous presidential search, in which we sometimes talked with prospects over restaurant meals. Madeleine lives in New York, and I visited her after an interview there. “Dad, I know how important confidentiality is in your search, so of course I wouldn’t try to find out anything about the person you interviewed today, but couldn’t you just tell me where you took her for lunch?” Good try, Madeleine. I don’t know whether she learned that approach to things from me or whether it was the other way around. In any case I was impressed by the attempt, even though it didn’t work!

Those we interview are not “applicants” at the time of the interview, because most didn’t apply to be Amherst’s president. They were nominated or referred to the committee by others. They are also not exactly “candidates,” as that word is used to describe candidates, say, for an educational degree or a political office. Those candidates are actively seeking their Ph.D.s or their seat in the legislature. In our search, those we interview are doing just fine in their current positions. People who know them and who also know Amherst have recommended them to us for consideration. Anyone willing to be interviewed must be at least curious about the position, but not necessarily strongly interested. We refer to those we interview as “prospects”: they are prospective Amherst presidents. Our job at the interviews is to find out about our prospects while also encouraging their interest in the position. If our interest in them and their interest in the position continue after the interview stage, the prospects become candidates for the Amherst presidency.

The prospects we interview are all impressively accomplished. Every single one is a plausible college president. Indeed, we can predict from our own and others’ past experiences on Amherst presidential search committees that many of those we interview who do not end up as president of Amherst will become presidents at other top colleges or universities during the next few years. Each one has a strong record of personal accomplishment in the academy or the professions.

Most have strong records of institutional leadership; many are currently responsible for budgets, facilities and personnel on a scale at least equal to Amherst’s.

To allow the search committee to interview as large a field of prospects as possible, we break up into scouting teams of four or five members drawn from the 14 members of the search committee. A team might consist of a student, a staff member, a trustee, an alumnus or alumna and a professor. The interviews are conducted away from campus to preserve confidentiality, because many of our prospects would not be willing to meet with us if it might become known that they were being considered for another position.

I was jealous of the team that went to Los Angeles during a particularly cold, dark time in the Amherst winter, until I heard from one member how it went—the long flight out arriving after dark, the following day spent in a hotel basement room conducting interviews, and a red-eye flight back east that night. My interview trips so far have been closer to home, traveling to New York and Boston. For a day of interviews in New York, the contingent from Amherst leaves from Converse Hall at 5:45 a.m. and convenes with the rest of the interview team shortly after 9 a.m. in Jide Zeitlin’s offices on the 44th floor at 500 Fifth Avenue. Expansive windows reveal a panorama of Manhattan south of 42nd street. Immediately below is the New York Public Library; we comment on its significance for this particular search—Tony Marx will become president there after leaving Amherst. I sit with my back to the windows so I can keep my eyes on the person being interviewed without being distracted by the stunning view.

It’s great to talk with these accomplished people. We focus on what they have done and how they have overcome challenges they have faced, rather than asking them to speculate about how they would deal with current issues at Amherst. It’s a conversation, necessarily very different from the entry or admission cross-examinations Amherst seniors often face when they apply for jobs or graduate school. Time is set aside for the interviewee to ask the interviewers questions. I believe the way we work as a committee encourages their interest in Amherst as a community: no one is a senior or junior search committee member, and sometimes a question is answered by more than one person, with different perspectives being expressed freely.

After each interview, the interview team discusses how to advise the whole search committee about the candidate. In the interviews I participated in so far, and in those I have heard about from other interview teams, the members of each team have been in close agreement on the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate and in their overall assessment of whether the whole committee should proceed further with the candidate. In the technical language of the human resources field, we have what I understand is called “high inter-rater reliability.”  It would be a mistake, however, to use a first impression made at an interview, even a highly positive first impression shared by everyone on the interview team, as a decisive factor in choosing a president. Studies by professors in schools of business and management have shown that interviews are far from perfect as predictors of future job performance. Those studies notwithstanding, it’s natural to feel confident about one’s judgment based on the interview: the joke is that when the same professors who proved that interviews don’t predict job performance hire a new person in their department, their own search process relies on interviews! Given the complexity of the Amherst president’s job, we need to maintain a realistic view of what we can discern about our prospects based on the interview.  

The interview, then, is a natural and vital part of any search like ours, but it must be only one step in the long process of selecting Amherst’s next president. When presidential searches begin to focus on finalists for the position, other means of assessing candidates are added, such as diligent checking of references and perhaps on-site visits. The ultimate goal is to find a “prospect” who becomes a “candidate,” then emerges as the best person for the Amherst presidency, and who reciprocates our enthusiasm. Our committee will be in the fascinating business of searching until the process is complete.