Searches for deans are at least half as important as searches for presidents yet attract about a 10th as much attention. Few institutions are willing to put in the work it takes to find the kind of decanal leadership everyone agrees is needed. So universities hire headhunters.

Trouble is, a headhunter gets paid when an institution makes a hire. But the university needs to make the hire, the person who will take your college to the next level. Having been on both sides of the administrative hiring process, I see five principles that can keep searches for a dean or provost from getting derailed. But before I share those principles, I want to illustrate my point by describing two searches that went off the tracks. I was a candidate in both.

The first incident took place five years ago. I was invited to interview for a post as "founding dean" of a school at Very Fine University. "Founding dean" means "you will have to build everything here that you already have in your old job, plus find a way to pay for it." It involves fund raising, management, and hiring, and the stress is high.

The headhunter chirped soothingly about "adventure" and "honor," but I was still doubtful. She told me that the university was committed to hiring an outside candidate, to shake things up and bring in new leadership. I just needed to send a cover letter and a CV, and she would take it from there; no other commitment from me was necessary. The hiring committee had looked closely at my record and was "very interested" in me, the headhunter said. Then she asked, "What do you do?"

"Very interested" doesn't quite correspond with "What do you do?" I was struck by the recruiter's lack of knowledge about either the hiring university or my record. Still, I sent in my packet. Two weeks later, Ms. Chirpy e-mailed, congratulating me on "making it to the next stage." The e-mail message included, as an attachment, a 12-page questionnaire with (among other things) eight extremely specific questions about what my budget and fund-raising plans would be at Very Fine U.

I hadn't even been offered an airport interview, and the university wanted me to spend hours spelling out my plans for the position?

Later that day, the recruiter called to ask if I had any questions. "No," I said. "But I think I am going to withdraw. You said all I needed to do to find out more information was send in my CV. But now you want me to spend two days on these forms. And I still don't know anything about the position."

"But you have to send in the questionnaire," she demanded. "You said you were interested!"

A week later, I got a letter from the head of the search committee, thanking me for my "interest" but saying my candidacy would be pursued no further, citing a "lack of fit." Six months later, the university announced an internal candidate as founding dean.

Incident two was more recent. I got a call from a headhunter, "just to talk," about an attractive deanship at Prominent Research University. We spoke for an hour. She asked three broad questions on leadership philosophy and called back a week later to discuss them further. I enjoyed our conversations, and she had plenty of information about the needs and strengths of the university.

This time, the headhunter for the consulting firm managed my expectations well and communicated honestly. She convinced me that Prominent Research U was intent on hiring an external candidate for the position. No, really.

I was invited for a campus visit, and it was at that point that the train wreck began. A travel agent sent me an itinerary: I was to leave my home at 3:30 p.m. and arrive at 8 p.m. I was picked up by a university car and taken straight to my hotel by about 8:45 p.m. The wordless driver was (I suppose) concentrating on the wintry road. The hotel had no restaurant, and it was 15 below outside. No suggestion, from the driver or anyone else at the university, on what I might do for dinner. I got a granola bar and some peanuts from a vending machine, watched the news, and went to bed.

The next day, my interview was scheduled for 1 p.m. The hotel had one of those "European continental breakfasts" that would make a European incontinent. No Internet connection, and no contact (breakfast? lunch? coffee?) from anyone at the university. At 12:30, the same university car and laconic driver picked me up for the 1 p.m. interview. Members of the hiring committee, composed of the provost and a bunch of department chairs, asked questions that made clear they had read nothing and prepared nothing for my interview. So we were back to "Love your work. What do you do?"

I concluded that the university wasn't really serious about me and had an inside candidate. But I didn't mind because it was interesting to talk, and now the stakes were low. I came prepared; I had read the university's planning documents and made some specific suggestions about ways to redirect several projects and change two key departments. The committee members relaxed, too; we had a fine time.

Shaking hands at the end, we were all smiles because we all got it: Nothing promised, nothing owed; we are going to hire inside; thanks for coming.

Then, a week later, the headhunter called. The visit had been "fantastic." The committee was taken by how "dynamic" I was and thought that the "energy in the room was just so great. I'm sure you felt it!" She asked if I could come back for the full and final campus visit right away.

I was stunned, muttered something, and got off the phone. Later that day, I sent an e-mail message in which I withdrew from the search. If that was how the university treated people it was interested in, I wanted no part of it. I had spent more than 18 hours there and had had a total of one hour of conversation, answering questions like "If you were a flower, what kind would you be?"

Two months later, Prominent Research U announced a new dean, a longtime internal department chair.

Now maybe both headhunters were right, and I am just confused by the hiring process. But both universities ended up hiring internally after spending time and money on a search for an external candidate. I contend that it was the universities that were confused because they ignored the five principles of external hiring.

1. Read the files. Have at least one person on the search committee — someone who is intellectually close to the candidate's field — read over the candidate's record. Then, before the interview, have that expert summarize the focus and conclusions of the candidate's work. It's hard to feel as if you are entering an exciting intellectual community when the message is "We love your work! Now tell us what it is that you do."

2. Be a good host. Charge a staff member with taking care of the candidate, welcoming him or her to the campus, and assisting with meals and transportation. Remember, there are only two kinds of visitors: (1) people you want to hire and (2) future customers, top academics at other universities who may well have nothing but this one visit as an impression of your university. Most of the visitors will fall into the second group, but that just means the interview should be an easy opportunity to shine. A little extra effort makes a huge difference.

3. Show that you are serious. Have the provost directly invite the finalists back to the campus. Any game theorist will tell you that the world turns on costly signals. Having some headhunter call and rave about your visit is cheap talk. That's her job. If the provost calls you, it's easier to believe the university is actually interested. Drop the dime; it's worth it.

4. Buy, don't rent. Most candidates you are excited about hiring are already well treated at their home institutions. Demanding that they write lengthy essays and do extensive research on your university as a condition for an airport interview sorts candidates perversely. If you hire someone who moves for money, you are only renting her, because she will move again for a better offer. Unless you want a "bungee dean," someone who drops in for 18 months and then flies up the ladder again, you should be looking for candidates who are committed to their current institutions. What that means is that on first contact, such candidates may be reluctant to commit to the interview. That is a good sign because that person takes commitment seriously.

5. Protect your interests. Your interests in conducting a search are not identical to the headhunter's, just as your interests as a first-time home buyer are not the same as your real-estate broker's. Remember, you are looking for the hire — the best, most committed administrator you can find. That hiring decision may affect your university for a decade or more. Rely too much on a nonacademic headhunter, and you will have no way of knowing if the best candidates failed to apply or withdrew.

Following those five principles will not necessarily make a decanal search easier. It's hard. And it should be hard; it is one of the most important choices a university can make. But if you keep the five principles in mind, you are likely to get a better pool and have a better chance of recruiting a dean who is right for your institution.


Michael C. Munger is chair of political science at Duke University, a position he has occupied since 2000.