Two recent internal Bowdoin hires prompted a closer investigation into the College’s process for filling new positions. The week before Spring Break, Tim Ryan was named the new athletic director and Sarah Seames was appointed director of the McKeen Center for the Common Good. Both had been serving as interim directors up to that point.
The search committees for both positions were chaired by Tim Foster, dean of student affairs, and consisted of faculty, staff, students and trustees. The McKeen Center group was also co-chaired by Nancy Jennings, chair of the education department and senior faculty fellow for the Center.
Bowdoin contracted Alden & Associates, a consultancy specializing in athletic directors and had recently completed searches for Williams and Colgate, to aid in the search for a new athletic director. Members of the firm came to campus last fall to compile information about the College in order to create a profile. In early January, the firm posted an announcement of the open position.
“These organizations are notoriously good at having big rolodexes of people in the field, so in the case of Bowdoin when opportunity becomes available word spreads pretty quickly,” said Foster. He said the overall applicant pool both for this search and the McKeen Center’s consisted of “frightfully talented groups of people,” and that “part of the reason the pools were as strong as they were was because there was some word on the street that we had a really strong person internally.
The initial group of applicants was narrowed down to six semifinalists—three men and three women, four sitting athletic directors and two senior administrators at Ivy League institutions—by the time Alden transferred control of the process to the search committee. The committee interviewed the candidates in Portland before inviting two finalists, Ryan and one female candidate, to campus for interviews.
“On campus it became a drinking-from-the-fire-hose sort of experience,” said Foster. “In a day and a half they met with 90 people, including student athletes, senior officers, coaches, the president, and the head of human resources,” before the committee met with President Barry Mills and ultimately decided on Ryan.
According to committee member and student-athlete Michael English ’14, Ryan was judged in a similar manner to the other candidates, even though he was a familiar face.
“The other candidates were very seriously considered, and it was not a runaway,” he said. “We kept our personal relationships with him completely separate and even tried to keep separate what he’s done as the interim director.”
For the McKeen Center position, the College decided not to use a firm, because of the unique nature of the position and the fact that “there weren’t really firms out there who we felt would add as much value as we would by doing it ourselves,” according to Foster. The McKeen Center search committee independently put together an announcement of the position before bringing candidates to Portland for interviews. Three women were chosen as the finalists, and went through to a similarly rigorous interview process as the other search.
Ironically, both national searches—which Foster said cost “the fee we paid Alden and the hundreds of hours of time invested by people across this campus”—ended with hirees from within the College.
“I would not have anticipated this as an outcome,” he added. “If you had asked me back in the fall if I thought we would hire internally, I would not have anticipated doing so.” Foster said that if he had “that could have been a much more abbreviated process, and we could have saved a lot of money.”
Searches like these can allow internal candidates the chance to step into their own spotlight after working in lower positions.
“What I learned through this process is, you don’t realize how talented really talented people are until things change and they’re given new opportunities,” Foster said.
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Some universities prohibit an administrator who holds an interim appointment from being a candidate for the permanent position, but others allow the interim leader to be an internal candidate for his or her job, and that raises some challenging questions.” Bowdoin’s adoption of the latter policy has been seemingly successful.
Though relatively recent director appointments like Scott Meiklejohn to admissions and financial aid and Sandra Hayes to health services have been interim candidates, there are instances this semester that have gone the other way. Frank and Anne Goodyear were named the new directors of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art with no prior affiliation with Bowdoin, while a student digest post last week mentioned that the three finalists for the permanent librarian position were all external candidates.
Foster acknowledged that some believe that interim candidates will “always win the job”, but said that this is untrue.
Seames noted that the College was not obligated invest the time and energy it did, and that she and Ryan could have been appointed last year without search committees had they known all along that it would end up that way.
“Going through the full process with 11 people who spent a lot of time, they were there to really think about what is best for the Center going forward,” she said. “I definitely did not feel like this was just perfunctory; it wasn’t just for appearances, and was not an easy process.”
“Rather than it being internal or external candidates who apply, it’s really important for the College to take an opportunity like this to look at the McKeen Center or athletics and really think strategically what they’re looking for, and then you find the best person for the job based on that,” she added.
Internal finalists do benefit from a familiarity with some of the people they meet with during the interview process, and this allows them to better prepare for how committee members will react. Ryan admitted that this “was certainly helpful” for him throughout the process.
Seames said being at Bowdoin for seven years prior to the start of the search process was helpful for her because “people got to know me, and because I was running some of our more well known programs like Common Good Day and Alternative Spring Break people probably associated me with the success of the McKeen Center.”
She did acknowledge that there was some downside to being well-known for her performance within the Center.
“I think being an internal candidate is a double edged sword,” she said. “There is the advantage that if you’ve done your job well you’re known for being skilled at what you do, but people see you in a certain light that may or may not fit with what you’re going for in a new position. You have to stretch beyond what people already know.”
The committee is faced with a different challenge when evaluating candidates with whom they already have a relationship.
“The fact that you know somebody a lot better means you know their gifts, but you also know their warts,” said Foster.
When deciding about instantly filling directorial positions versus making interim appointments, Foster said that timing of the process is very important.
“If I [lose] somebody in August I’m not going to run a national search, I’m going to try to appoint somebody in an interim role and run the search at the time of year when I can get the most qualified people,” he said. “I would not put someone in an interim position unless I believed that a person was available who would do the job until a search is conducted and a permanent person is appointed.”
Foster said that in his seven years of experience as dean of student affairs, he has not hired an abnormal amount of interim candidates.
“When I look at my own department heads group and deans team, [searches are] how we hired the vast majority of staff who fill those roles,” Foster said. “A few were first interims, a few were promotions, but the vast majority were searches where there was not an interim.”
CORRECTION 3/29/13, 1:55 p.m.: The online title of the article was changed to more accurately represent the story, and the mentioning of Kate Stern, director of the Resource Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity, as an interim elevation was removed. Stern acted as interim director of the Women's Resource Center after she arrived at Bowdoin, but was never elevated from an internal interim position as the original version of the story stated.