University of Cincinnati streamlines searches, avoids costs and seeks diverse hires

To enhance both operations and efficiencies, UC began an experiment in 2017 to cultivate in-house expertise for top-level searches and to forego use of search firms.

Two years ago, the University of Cincinnati pioneered a practice unusual for a large, public university with more than  46,000 students and thousands of employees.

To contain and avoid recruiting costs and focus on owning our campus culture, the university committed to the use of in-house expertise to conduct top-level searches – a task that was once routinely conducted by national search firms on behalf of the institution.

Since that time, the university has conducted nearly 20 searches, from provost and vice provosts, deans and associate deans to a general counsel, governmental relations director, and bursar. The tally in avoided costs for these searches comes to an estimated $2 million in what would have been spent on search firm fees and associated travel costs.

UC president's challenge

Tamie Grunow, UC’s human resources chief, recalls the genesis of the new practice, launched due to efficiency explorations by UC President Neville Pinto and Senior Vice President for Administration and Finance Robert Ambach.

This latest efficiency was initially suggested by President Pinto, UC’s then new president who began at the university in February 2017.

 “The president made a straightforward observation that our undergraduate, in-state tuition is about $11,000 per year,” Grunow recalls. “As such, we could expect that the then-upcoming provost search, if it made use of a search firm, might cost around $150,000. That equaled tuition of about 13 students.  Or, as he put it, ‘That’s 13 scholarships.’”

And, coincidentally, President Pinto had applied for the presidency at UC, but not due to a search firm’s recruitment efforts. At the time, he was at the helm of another institution; however, he was aware of UC’s presidential search because he’d been a long-time faculty member and dean at UC earlier in his career. He eventually applied for the role in order to come home to both the university and the city he had long called home.

Says Grunow, “Clearly, we couldn’t count that those same factors would come into play for other administrative hires, but it opened the door to the realization and the willingness to experiment. We were going to see if we couldn’t rely on ourselves, own our culture and our results. We certainly had the aptitude and motivation. The question was, ‘Could we rely on developing our skill sets across campus?’”

She added that even though the new practice launched with a high-profile provost search, it made all the difference to have the confidence and support not only of the president and leadership in administration and finance but the Board of Trustees as well.

“We had an HR team in place that had implemented and solidified many professional development efforts. These have since been fully realized in an innovative Staff Success Center, a Staff Senate and other achievements tied to the university's Next Live Here strategic direction. So, I had no doubt that bringing top-level searches in-house was a practice the team could also tackle, quite successfully launch, and ultimately maintain momentum for the long term,” explained UC’s Ambach.

Recruitment: new tools and human connections

HR’s Grunow and colleagues Debbie Hatke, talent acquisition manager, and Shelly Sherman, HR executive director, honed in on the essential selling point many search firms tout – that of access to candidates and a broad reach to canvas widely for the best possible candidates for open positions.

 “As we began this process,” explains Hatke, “We wondered if these search firm strengths around access and geographic reach weren’t negated in today’s technologically advanced environment and the availability of data mining tools and networked communications options.”

What’s more, by taking ownership of its searches, the university would not be hampered by certain limitations common when making use of a search firm’s services, namely:

• Search firms cannot contact potential candidates who work for their other clients.

• Search firms cannot present the same candidate to multiple clients.

Our faculty and staff know the landscape. They know their college or unit and its history. They know their own needs and interests better than anyone.

Shelly Sherman, Executive Director of UC's Human Resources

Other aspects of the search – including the time commitment required to support search operations as well as any needed industry or functional expertise specific to higher education and/or a specific academic or operational discipline – were known quantities and generally driven by university personnel even when search firms were customarily hired.

“Within their areas of expertise, our faculty and staff know the landscape. They know their college or unit and its history. They know their own needs and interests better than anyone. They know the currents in their fields of endeavor – whether that’s the design field, the music field or any other discipline,” states Sherman, referring to UC’s 2018 hires for a dean of its top-ranked College-Conservatory of Music and the College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning. “Our role in HR is to provide guidance on what makes an ethically sound search – structural consistency in applying principles, parameters and process.”

She adds that throughout the past two years, the in-house HR team added to its toolkit. “Now, we’re recognized as a marketing resource to help cast that broad net. We also work with the internal search committees in outreach to diverse venues and candidates.”

It helps that Hatke, tapped to provide expertise to that 2017 provost search and later searches as well, is a certified internet recruiter, has a background in urban planning and was comfortable with technology tools to assure both geographic and generational reach (in using tools common to Gen-X, Gen-Y and millennials) as part of the toolkit to cast a wide net for prospective hires.

For instance, using Boolean (binary) data variables, she is able to mine the internet for qualified applicants and reach out to them via “warm calls” (versus cold calls).

Other tools include search engine optimization (SEO), social media (Facebook and Twitter) as well as sites such as LinkedIn to garner greater attention for a position opening. Another tool is the use of algorithms that can conduct searches of existing digital networks like LinkedIn to identify potential candidates.

And content postings for these positions is matched to the medium.

Hatke explains, “We write different versions of the job ad, depending on the medium and audience where we will deploy. So, for example, one very short for Twitter or for Facebook, a longer one for our own web-site. ”

She adds, “Whatever the medium and audience, we have seconds to hook someone’s attention to UC.”

HR team memberes in University Pavilion

UC human resources staff members Shelly Sherman, Tamie Grunow and Connie Sydnor are piloting efficiencies around leadership searches. Not pictured here is team member Debbie Hatke. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Creative Services

The human touch

And the search committee is also paramount to engaging that initial interest.

Committee members are expected to leverage a diverse array of networks that they themselves are connected to – whether that’s outreach to those already employed at, for example, historically black colleges and universities, or networks of ex-military service members.

Sherman, who brings marketing expertise to the table, explains, “Sometimes, it’s as simple as empowering the committee. Experts in that particular field – music, design, business, law or online learning – often know both mainstream and the out-of-the-way associations, affinity groups or publications. And if they don’t, they know someone who does. We develop highly specialized lists.”

In marketing, it’s called “snowballing,” where a network is leveraged exponentially – where committee members check their networks, who in turn connect with their networks and so on – to reach a broad array of candidates.  In time, the snowballing process builds on itself over both the short and long terms.

Sherman adds, “Yes, in some cases, search committee members shoulder more responsibility for some leg work than they might not have done if we used a search firm. But, then again, our search committee members are also citizens of our colleges and will live with the results of our hires for years to come. The motivation is there, as we all have a real stake. We own our results.”

Tracking diversity and faster results

One important component and goal in building up in-house documentation and expertise related to searches is tracking the diversity of the candidate pools and hires.

The historical record on past pools is not available because of the variety of search firms customarily used by the university in the past. These firms typically held that data.

Debbie Hatke poses in front of Tangeman University Center.

HR’s Debbie Hatke is part of the team helping to pilot efficiencies around leadership searches. Photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative Services

As the new, in-house agency continues its work, HR is tracking both the diversity of pools and hires for these top-level searches.  And the goal is continuous improvement.

Another goal is faster processes.  Anecdotally, past searches using firms were completed in 9 to 12 months. Of the nearly 20 searches completed without the use of such firms, the average time to completion  required 6 months.

According to Grunow, “To be fair, part of that time factor in the past consisted of the time required to screen and select a search firm, go through institutional and state processes for a contract.”

However, she anticipates that UC’s searches will continue to require less time than formerly. One reason: institutional memory and delineated processes.

She explains, “Before we centralized what I’ll call our in-house agency for these searches, there was almost no documented institutional memory of some former searches and their processes because they had been scattered in colleges and units. Now, that institutional memory resides centrally and is easily accessible to draw from. That means we’re more knowledgeable and more efficient.”

Importantly, part of that institutional memory includes establishing self-supporting structures like a new manual that defines the roles and responsibilities in a search, those borne by the committee and those borne by the HR team.

Campus response

Tim Jachna was hired in 2018 as dean to head the university’s celebrated College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP) and recalls the process used by UC from the point of view of a candidate.

“I saw an ad in a higher ed trade publication, and my first question was: Who is your search firm and who should I contact?”

And while it was his first time as part of a top-level search without an external firm present, “the pacing, steps and processes were in line with what I’d come to expect from being on both sides of a past searches.”

He adds, “The advantage to the way UC is doing it is the intimate connection and understanding of the institution that is communicated throughout the search process. I could sense that every step of the way. My interactions brought me real insight. There was an ethos and mentality of ‘We got this. And let’s get it done.’”

All in all, Dean Jachna wonders if more schools might imitate the UC practice, especially in geographic locales where there might be few search firms that specialize in higher education versus corporate recruiting. “I recall sitting on a search committee for a senior academic post, for which we used a corporate firm without a specific focus on higher education. Their networks and their experience did not translate well to higher ed. In the end, we had four finalists, all of whom the institution identified on its own because the search firm did not have an educational background and network.”

UC International Vice Provost Raj Mehta, who chaired the search that brought Jachna to UC, opines that such searches can successfully attract leading candidates, even without employing a firm, because the university’s outstanding programs and reputation in design, cooperative education, music and more are well known and are recognized leaders on the world stage.

Mehta states, “Unique programs with unique strengths, like the way DAAP is one of the very few in the world where design, architecture, art, and planning programs are combined with a required, sequential cooperative education program – these boost interest in UC’s openings. Our real estate, if you will, is uniquely situated to draw interest and attention.”

Industry response: national presentations

UC’s human resources team has presented on these university efforts at various conferences and venues, including the Higher Educational Recruitment Consortium, the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources and Graystone Group, among others. In addition, other institutions have contacted UC regarding these hiring practices, including Ohio State University, Purdue University, Johns Hopkins University, University of Kentucky, Bowling Green State University and University of Utah.

This past spring, Grunow was one of three panelists on an HR business affairs forum sponsored by member-driven research consultancy EAB, formerly the Education Advisory Board.

Kaitlyn Maloney, EAB Research senior consultant, organized that forum and asked Grunow to participate as “it was one of the first times we’d heard of this practice in higher ed. We know of a handful of other institutions that have also moved in this direction – mostly large, public, research institutions like UC.”

Maloney adds that while “the practice might not be right for every higher ed institution, it’s is a great example of a business leader questioning that status quo and looking for innovative new ways to free up resources for mission investment. “

Next steps

After two years of proven success, the HR employees who established the new practice (Grunow, Hatke and Sherman) have now been joined by a new senior recruiter Connie Sydnor.

She is stepping into her role with two key searches: A new head for UC Enrollment Management, as the current vice provost in that position will retire at the end of the year after having led the university to an enviable seven straight years of ever-increasing, record enrollments.  Similarly, the university’s architect recently retired – after a nearly 15-year tenure overseeing a built environment that resulted in New York Times Magazine coverage of campus’ noted architecture.

Searches conducted at UC since 2017 without a firm

• Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost

• Chief Innovation Officer

• Vice President for Legal Affairs and General Counsel

• Dean, Carl H. Lindner College of Business

• Dean, College-Conservatory of Music

• Dean, College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning

• Dean, College of Engineering and Applied Science

• Dean, College of Law

• Dean, McMicken College of Arts and Sciences

• Dean, UC-Blue Ash College

• Vice Provost and Dean, Cincinnati Online

• Associate Provost, Experience-Based Learning & Career Education

• Associate Dean, Clermont College, Academic Affairs

• Associate Dean, James L. Winkle College of Pharmacy

• Assistant Vice Provost, Student Financial Aid – Enrollment Management

• Deputy Chief of Staff, President’s Office

• Executive Director, Governmental Relations

• Bursar

Importantly, all of the hires made for these positions are still serving at the university.

“Yes, it’s about efficiency. It’s about growing our own talent and owning our own culture,” states Grunow. “And it’s also about a diverse workforce that wants to be part of a great team and make a real difference. We are hoping for and hiring candidates who will grow and build here in the long term.”

Featured image at top: Getty images

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