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Anatomy of a Search

Key players in the Spelman presidential-search process reflect on what went right

This article originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education on April 6, 2016.

By Celeste Watkins-Hayes

In July 2014, Beverly Daniel Tatum announced her retirement after 13 years as president of Spelman College. Ten months later, the trustees named her successor: Mary Schmidt Campbell, dean emerita at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, who took office as president of Spelman last August. What follows is the story of the search from multiple vantage points -- the chair of the board, the president of the faculty council, the chair of the search committee, and the new president -- each offering lessons on what worked for the college and could work elsewhere.

Celeste Watkins-Hayes, chair of the presidential search committee: I am an alumna of Spelman and vice chair of its board, neither of which made me an unusual choice to lead the search. What did: The fact that I am a professor.

Typically, faculty members are not the ones tapped to chair a presidential search committee. That job usually goes to a trustee from the private or government sectors. So what did I, as a faculty member, bring to the task?

Among my many responsibilities as chair was to help build the best candidate pool possible, setting a generous table so that search-committee members would have an array of excellent choices before them. That meant actively working with our search consultant (Isaacson, Miller) to develop the candidate pool in quantity, but more important, in quality. I spoke with several fascinating people to either solicit names or discuss their potential interest in the job. In each conversation, finding a point of connection helped me better understand the candidate and, I believe, helped the candidate better understand Spelman.

For our eventual nominee, Mary Schmidt Campbell, my role as a faculty member, writer, and scholar of African-American studies served as our point of connection. Campbell and I were both in the throes of book writing when we began talking. She was writing a book on the artist Romare Bearden, and I was writing on the social and economic experiences of women living with HIV/AIDS. Having recently transitioned from her role as a dean at New York University, she was, like any scholar, extremely protective of this opportunity to complete her manuscript. We had a rich conversation, but she declined to be considered for the Spelman presidency.

"I understand your position," I replied. "But would you be willing to talk periodically about our book projects?" She agreed, and for the next few months, as my colleagues on the search committee and I continued to explore the candidate pool, I occasionally emailed Campbell to talk about our books. I didn’t do that purely to lure her into the search; after all, we were talking with many talented people. But my job as head of the search was to help generate the best possible candidate pool, so I knew it would be wise to keep in touch with her.

As Campbell and I continued our conversations, it became clear that she was the right leader at the right time. I was struck by how much her ideas aligned with our vision for Spelman; how much her intellect, communication style, and passion for both social justice and rich scholarly inquiry resonated with the culture of Spelman; and how her experiences as a long-serving, successful dean at NYU could prove invaluable for Spelman and our strategic agenda. I was energized and inspired by our talks, reminded of the power of the life of the mind.

Then came the conversation where Campbell excitedly shared that she had completed the manuscript on Romare Bearden. As a fellow scholar, I was delighted for her. As chair of the Spelman search committee, I saw an opportunity. The time was right for her to contemplate pursuing the presidency. And I think my being a professor and a fellow scholar played a role in this mutual discovery and assessment process.

As faculty members, we emphasize fair and systematic processes, collaboration in decision-making, and the power of making intellectual connections. Those are some of the tools that I brought to bear in Spelman’s search. Despite the many challenges facing academe today, those skills and values of academe have tremendous importance as we labor to identify and nurture future leaders.

- Celeste Watkins-Hayes is an associate professor of sociology & African-American studies at Northwestern University and chair of Spelman’s presidential-search committee.

Topics: Books, Opinion

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