Deeper Look into the Presidential Search

By Alex Kerai ’19

Editor-in-Chief

On the morning of the presidential announcement, the Herald spoke by phone with John Isaacson, the founder and Chair of search firm Isaacson, Miller. Mr. Isaacson was integrally involved in the presidential search and answered some of the Herald’s questions about the process and what it was like to work with HWS.

Mr. Isaacson and his firm have been assisting the Colleges and the Presidential Search Committee since early July. In an email update, Search Committee co-chairs Andy McMaster and Cynthia Fish wrote that “Isaacson, Miller is a preeminent firm serving academia in the recruitment of presidents, vice presidents and deans for some of the nation’s leading Colleges and universities.” Throughout the process, Mr. Isaacson has met with students, faculty, and staff to determine the desired qualities for the next HWS president, while managing the search process and recruiting candidates.

“People were very anxious on campus about the search, and that included everyone from students to faculty and staff to the Board,” Mr. Isaacson said. “But the Search chairs and the Board chair put a tremendous amount of time in on preparing for the search.” He noted that they interviewed many different search firms and “probably did more reference checks than anyone else who hired us.”

Listening sessions for faculty, staff, and students were held on campus so that Isaacson, Miller could begin to assess the needs of the community. Isaacson said that he traveled to campus several times as well: “I think we really did know the campus well by the end of the search, and I’m sure that influenced the quality of the Search Committee’s deliberations and be clear about what it needed.”

But it was not just the campus itself that was attractive. Isaacson noted that “the most attractive thing here was that people really believe in the place and they understand viscerally what it can mean to young people. It’s a really nice and reassuring commitment to helping young people find their place in the world – intellectually and personally. There’s a shared view among trustees and faculty – ‘mission coherence’ – That made it possible for the committee to probe what was important in a new President.”

Although aspects of the search were closed to outsiders, and Isaacson would not disclose any trade secrets, he had nothing but praise for the committee and the work they did. One faculty member of the committee, Professor of Political Science Justin Rose, said that the faculty were “the only elected representatives, specifically with the purpose of serving on the Search Committee.” As such, Rose noted, “there was a bit of added pressure, a certain sense of having to represent the views of the faculty. We wanted to represent the views of the faculty but also the broader institutional view.”

Isaacson complimented the committee as a whole. With such a diverse range of experiences and viewpoints, it could have been difficult to agree on a single candidate. But the choice of Dr. Jacobsen was unanimous and Isaacson commended the committee: “I appreciate very much the way they came together, the quality in the leadership of the committee, and the way people reached beyond their normal experience to learn more about the place. They came together in a really lovely way.”

Members of the faculty who were on the Search Committee echoed Isaacson’s sentiments: “During the process there was widespread transparency and honesty which made it a successful search in the end,” Rose told the Herald. “We [the faculty] were as honest as we could be about wanting equity, which helped the process be a success in the end.”

Isaacson also noted that they started off having many different angles of vision before working their way towards a single vision. Professor of Physics Donald Spector agreed when he spoke to the Herald after the announcement: “It was a really high-functioning committee. Everybody listened to everybody else. It wasn’t like we all went in saying, ‘We must think alike,’ but we took those differences of how we thought and really achieved a common viewpoint and this is the outcome and we’re all feeling equally excited about it.”

Isaacson commended Dr. Jacobsen, the President-elect, as a “an incredible Provost” and said that she has “the combination of a thoughtful careful listener and decisive intellectual.” These qualities became more apparent during extensive interviews with the committee: “She manages beautifully to pull everyone together [at Wesleyan] to create a kind of dialogue that is important and then make critical choices that are strategically important.”

Praise of both Dr. Jacobsen and the Search Committee was unanimous at both the Presidential announcement and during the Herald’s call with Isaacson. After having visited HWS and worked with faculty, staff, and students from the school for the past seven months, Isaacson said, “The school has a terrific array of programs and a faculty utterly dedicated to their teaching. This is a personal journey for students, and they can find their way in the world.”

In regard to Dr. Jacobsen’s new journey as President of HWS, Isaacson praised her work and noted that he will probably offer private advice to her closer to July when her tenure begins.

 

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