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Open or closed search?

Open or closed search? / Rawf8

The hallmarks and value of holding an “open” job search might seem obvious, but when it comes to particular jobs — such as senior administrative positions at universities — academic staff associations across Canada are finding it more and more necessary to explain and defend the need for openness.

“Closed searches send the wrong kind of message to everyone. They make shared governance thinner and they perpetuate a kind of inversion between administration and governance,” says Robin Whitaker, who along with Marc Schroeder, co-chair the CAUT Governance Working Group. “Senior administrators play the role of management, but they should be directed from the bottom up, and having closed searches is a perpetuation of the reversal of how information and the decision-making should be flowing,” she adds.

Schroeder is blunt: “Closed searches hurt the academy. The long-term damage within the community to confidence in the process definitely isn’t worth it.”

There are many stages to a job search and every search can vary in how open or closed it might be throughout the process, from composition of the job search committee; to what powers the committee wields vis-à-vis chair selection, advertising and interview format; to who may scrutinize the full job applicant list; ending with whether an “open finalist phase” providing opportunity for public presentations, and meetings with campus groups allowing community input are even contemplated. 

But however you define an open search, there is growing controversy around changing norms in senior administrative job hunts, with many staff associations now worrying that collegial “traditions” and habits of openness that seemed to work in the past are no longer being followed on their campuses, as new practices of corporate secretiveness become the accepted standard — at least from administrators’ perspectives — at their institutions.

Only a few academic staff associations have negotiated language in their collective agreements on open hiring processes, and while there is little hard data on the incidence of “closed” versus “open” job searches for senior administrators at Canadian universities, there is strong and growing anecdotal evidence of erosion of transparent and collegial processes for such searches.

A CAUT governance survey conducted in 2019 revealed members’ disquiet with “creeping closure” or the notion of growing secrecy in job searches, and their belief that reversing the trend is a key priority in support of sound collegial governance.

Survey respondents reported senior administrative job searches becoming increasingly closed at key points in the process, with campus communities cut out from knowing which candidates made the short list, and with no opportunity to provide input into the final decision. Increasingly, private sector executive search firms are hired to conduct the process, at substantial cost.

A recent report on collegial governance at Ontario universities from the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) indicated “a marked tendency towards closed searches for presidents and even other senior administrative positions…. although we do not have access to historical records, the narrative evidence suggests that a change to closed presidential searches has been made at many institutions in the past 20 years.”

The report is based on a comprehensive survey of Ontario academic staff associations, and found 23 per cent of presidential searches in the province are open, with 77 per cent closed.

Schroeder and Whitaker cite many negative aspects of closed searches, including the erosion of collegial engagement and widening of the gulf between academic staff and the administrative cadre. They take note that more and more senior administrators have no academic background at all, but are often hired onto campuses where they’ve never set foot, and in their ideology reflect and reinforce the corporatization of the academy.

Ultimately, Whitaker says academic staff and others very much want to have confidence in the process, but that closed searches send mixed messages to candidates, finalists and the community at large.

“It’s hard to have confidence when you really don’t know what’s happened, whether the pool of candidates has reflected equity and diversity, and how and why and by whom decisions were made,” Whitaker says.

Additionally, she warns that the administrative argument that “this is how it’s done” is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy with little proof of why it should be that way.

The OCUFA report also takes issue with perpetuation of this argument.

“No evidence was cited for the value of closed searches other than an assumption on the part of university administrations and boards that the closed model would yield a stronger candidate pool. This seems to be an assumption which has been argued by search firms to enhance their relationships with clients and accepted by many university boards. Unfortunately, this argument ignores the negative impact of narrowing the type and quantity of information about candidates that can be obtained in a closed search,” the report concludes.

Whitaker and Schroeder say the CAUT Governance Working Group is in the process of considering what good administrative job hunts should look like, and will develop policy accordingly. In the meantime, they advise academic staff associations to be proactive in dealing with issues on their campuses, rather than waiting until a controversial job search process is announced or completed. While an association is preparing for bargaining, and during normal policy review cycles are key moments to review existing practices for administrative job searches and push for change as required.

They also advise that while there is no “one size fits all” procedure for every campus, there are several important features to watch for, including substantial elected academic staff and academic staff association representation on job search committees; clear processes approved by Senate; inclusion of meaningful equity provisions; opportunities for the campus community to contribute; and an open finalist phase.

Larry Savage, chief negotiator for the Brock University Faculty Association (BUFA), has seen controversial presidential job searches unfold at the University, and says current senior administrators have made it “crystal clear” they prefer closed processes. But while BUFA has made open search a bargaining priority in past negotiations, it did not win language in the collective agreement, settling instead on an agreement with the Board that the Senate’s faculty handbook provisions around open searches — providing for open searches for all positions except president — would be respected and not altered.

That agreement expires with their collective agreement, and Savage notes that despite its terms, a new position of Associate VP Research was recently created, and a closed search undertaken.

“The President's position was that it didn’t have to be open because the position doesn't exist in the faculty handbook and the agreement between the union and the Board only applies to positions in the handbook,” he says. “In other words, in creating new positions, he was saying he doesn't have to be bound by these traditions.”

Despite an overwhelming Senate vote recommending the President incorporate the position into the faculty handbook along with open search provisions, a closed search ensued.

“It’s prompted the members of the Association to double down on making this an issue in collective bargaining, because it's clear that the traditional collegial way of getting things done in the University failed on this particular issue,” Savage says. “Our goal is to negotiate language that would embed our existing rights from the faculty handbook into the collective agreement. The handbook currently guarantees us rights to participation, provides for public talks of shortlisted candidates, gives members an opportunity to provide the search committee with our views on the suitability of the candidates, and allows us to view the CVs of the shortlisted candidates. Clearly, these are processes and values that are good for the university as a whole.”


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