The Campus Visit: Making It Count
By Dr. Marylouise Fennell and Dr. Scott D. Miller
College Planning and Management, January 2008
In previous writings, we’ve likened the assessment stage of the presidential search process to the discovery process in a trial, the pivotal stage at which evidence is amassed and evaluated. The same is true of the campus tour, the most critical element of this first search stage. When we say “tour,” we may in fact be speaking of multiple visits; many campuses conduct an initial “quiet,” i.e., non-public visit, to let the finalists and their families undertake an informal, unpublicized, and incognito tour before committing to the scrutiny of formal, public meetings. This is the best practice, as it may save face for both the candidate and hiring institution before too much time is invested on either side if the fit proves wrong.
The rest of our remarks then, will focus on the formal, public campus visit. Finalists for posts in public institutions, of course, must be made aware that “sunshine” laws of many states mean that their names are public knowledge. Beyond that, there are a number of steps that both candidates and search committees can take to ensure that time devoted to the campus visit is well spent.
In our experience, hiring institutions can enhance the productivity of the campus visit by:
Ensuring that it is scheduled for a time when most students, faculty, and senior administrators will be on campus. Nothing is more discouraging to a candidate eager to observe the campus culture than to arrive when students and faculty are absent and/or when key senior administrators and search committee members are off-campus. In addition, faculty and staff need to understand that their role is to provide input, rather than to vote on the finalists.
Making all available materials and schedules available to all candidates well in advance of the visit. Leading candidates are likely to be booked 24/7, and receiving thick packets one or two days prior to their scheduled visit will allow them insufficient time to adequately prepare. Candidate preparatory packets should include:
accreditation self-studies and reports from all regional accrediting bodies;
strategic master plans and campaign feasibility studies;
all admission materials, including search pieces, viewbooks, etc.;
local business information, including Chamber of Commerce directories, downtown partnerships, etc.;
a list of search committee members, titles, responsibilities, and reasons for their inclusion on the committee; and
a list of institutional memberships and accreditations.
Providing names and contact information for students, faculty, volunteer leadership and staff not on the search committee willing to talk informally with leading candidates. Students should represent a broad cross-section of the enrollment, not just student leaders.
Conversely, candidates can ensure a productive visit by:
Requesting informal “down” time during the visit to get a sense of the campus culture. At the finalist state, it’s likely that all candidates are well qualified for the post; the critical ingredient in the final decision is the fit. There’s no substitute for walking around the campus to observe and get the “feel” of the institution. Informal interaction with students, faculty, and staff can provide valuable anecdotal information not easily ferreted out through formal means. If, for example, no one can direct you to the president’s office, that’s a helpful piece of information to know!
Doing due diligence before the visit. Just as savvy institutions will check non-list references at candidates’ current and previous institutions, prudent candidates will come to the interview thoroughly prepared with anecdotal as well as formal information about the institution, its history, and culture. Take time, for example, to Google names of board members beforehand. Talk with higher-education leaders and come with thoughtful questions.
Coming in with open eyes and open minds. It’s all too easy to view the institution with rose-tinted lenses – the “halo” effect – when one has been recruited; its’ flattering, after all, to be in demand, while ignoring red flags. Conversely, the candidate should come fully prepared to say “no” if at any point the situation does not feel right.
Making campus visits count as fully as possible will go a long way to ensuring a good institutional fit and hence, a productive, long-term “marriage.”
Dr. Marylouise Fennell is principal of Gallagher-Fennell Higher Educational Services in Pittsburgh, PA, senior council to the Washington-based Council for Independent Colleges (CIC) and past president of Carlow University, PA.
Now in his 17th year as a college president, Dr. Scott D. Miller recently assumed the presidency of Bethany College in West Virginia following a transformational decade as president of Wesley College, Dover, DE.