Top cabinet spots go to outsiders

As GW looks to replace one of its longest-serving vice presidents and seven senior managers, University President Steven Knapp’s hiring history points to a preference for external candidates that could become a marker of these big recruitments.

Two-thirds of the top academic and administrative leaders hired by Knapp came from outside organizations, a Hatchet analysis shows, indicating odds are stacked against administrators hoping to move through the GW ranks. But Knapp said the University will maintain a strategy of hiring the most qualified candidates, without consideration of their affiliation.

“[Hiring committees] always ask the question, ‘So are we looking for an internal or external candidate?’ And I always say the same thing, ‘I don’t have a bias either way. Find the strongest person you can,’ ” Knapp said.

Among Knapp’s cabinet-level appointments, more than 70 percent hailed from outside GW. Of the 10 deans hired under Knapp’s tenure – including two who have since left the University – six were external hires.

Provost Steven Lerman joined GW from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2010, the same year Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations Mike Morsberger came from the medical arm of Duke University. Last semester, Morsberger credited Knapp with luring him to GW after the two worked well together at Johns Hopkins University earlier in his career.

The University will soon launch a search for a permanent dean for the School of Medicine and Health Sciences and searches are currently underway for a vice provost of budget and finance and an associate dean for finance and administration in the School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

It is not uncommon for new college presidents to hand pick their top advisers. Knapp’s senior hires hailed from other colleges as well as the public and private sectors, leaving jobs at organizations like the Federal National Mortgage Association, the International Business Machines Corporation and the National Research Council of the National Academies.

Jean Johnson, the dean of the School of Nursing, and Ali Eskandarian, who heads the College of Professional Studies, are both internal hires, as is the interim leader of School of Medicine and Health Sciences Jeffrey Akman.

Each school conducts dean searches by its own bylaws and presents the provost and Knapp with a few final candidates, Knapp said.

John Isaacson, president of the talent search firm that is currently organizing three department chair and director searches for GW, estimated that national searches typically include one or two internal candidates in a hiring pool of about 20. He said existing employees are consistently considered but tend to be outnumbered because of the volume of schools nationwide from which candidates are pulled.

Isaacson said internal candidates are not always poised to move up when a vacancy occurs or they may opt to leave for higher positions elsewhere before the opening is available at their institution, creating an “ordinary mismatch.”

“When it’s time for [internal candidates] to find something, it’s not always exactly the right time for the University to be looking,” he said.

While internal candidates who are familiar with the institution can have “less of a learning curve,” Knapp said external hiring has its benefits.

“Often these are people who are strong faculty members as well, so you’re building up your faculty at the same time. If you pick an existing faculty member, you’re not getting a new faculty member,” Knapp said of outside hires.

The University has expanded its outside hiring as it launched new science programs in recent years, Knapp said, citing public health and computational biology as examples. GW was forced to look externally for leaders in those fields because it did not have experts in those specialties before, he said.

External hiring can also encourage existing employees to step up their game, he said.

“If you bring in somebody from outside who’s extremely successful in their field, then that kind of makes everybody else feel like well, I better get my act together and, you know, work a little harder,” Knapp said, although he said it had not been an issue at GW.

Vice President for Human Resources Sabrina Ellis – who assumed her post in January – oversees the University’s recruitment strategy, staff training and employee compensation and benefits. She said GW uses a two-pronged approach when building its workforce, incorporating national talent searches with internal employee development.

Ellis, who previously served as the chief human resources officer at the City College of New York, is the newest member of Knapp’s cabinet. The short list of candidates for her post was not publicly released, but Executive Vice President and Treasurer Lou Katz oversaw the search and attributed the hiring decision to her management experience, staff development and employee engagement.

“Talent acquisition is about getting talent wherever you can get it, and that doesn’t limit us external to internal,” she said. “We’re looking internally as much as we’re looking externally.”

National searches can be more time consuming, Ellis said, noting that the University is working to speed up its “cumbersome recruitment process.” She said in March she hopes to eliminate red tape during hiring to make GW a more appealing employer.

Through the use of search firms, the University looks to “expand our outreach and maximize efforts to recruit well-qualified candidates,” Ellis said.

Isaacson said a typical top-level search, which lasts between six months and a year, costs about one-third of the position’s annual salary.

Ellis also emphasized the tools put in place to allow current employees to move up. To help hires advance within GW, the Organizational Development and Effectiveness – previously dubbed Staff Learning and Development – provides employees with webinars, management training and team-building exercises. The office’s name was changed last month to reflect the University’s mission to aid both faculty and staff, Ellis said.

“When people come here, we want them to see themselves succeeding and being able to make progression in their careers,” Ellis said. “It’s good for the institution, it’s good for them.”

With Senior Vice President for Student and Academic Support Services Robert Chernak – hired under former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg – preparing to step down in June, Knapp said the vacancy will allow the University to reflect on the structure of the position. But he declined to say if an internal candidate would be preferable in a role so closely aligned with students.

“I’m not going to pre-judge that because I don’t want to bias the search committee into not looking for the best possible person, whether inside or outside,” Knapp said.

Chernak emphasized the need for a balance between institutional and external hiring for top job openings at the University but noted that internal candidates provide unique perspective because of their institutional memory – what he called an “invaluable asset.”

“Just as importantly, it is essential to demonstrate a commitment to current staff for their professional development, and to allow for opportunities for their further career advancement when they have proven by past accomplishment worthy of this investment,” Chernak said.

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