Starr King Is Unique, but It’s NOT Special…or, Terminal Uniqueness Strikes Again…

I get to start this post with an Earlham story.

During my time at Earlham, the school went through 2 MAJOR searches; one for President and one for Vice President of Finance. They also had 1 important search that wasn’t as major (a long term interim). Finally there was a search that was minorly important (and my sentimental favorite); the Director of Library Services.

When Doug Bennett announced that he was going to retire, the Earlham Board of Trustees appointed a Search Committee comprised of board members, Earlham College faculty, ESR faculty, Earlham College staff, one of the Co-Convenors of Earlham Student Government, and an outside community member (if I’m remembering correctly, that person was from Indiana Yearly Meeting but not on the Earlham board). In conjunction with the appointment of the Search Committee, the board hired a headhunting/professional search firm to help the search committee.

Main difference between an academic executive search and a ministerial search…the presence of a completely neutral third party

After commissioning, the Search Committee (with assistance of the headhunting firm) interviewed specific people and did a survey to collect data on what people thought were the qualities that the next President of Earlham needed. From that information they worked up a position announcement and list of requirements. Then it was decided where the position announcement would be placed.

When the announcement was put out, there was a paragraph that looked like this:

[Blank] College is being assisted in this search by Academic Search, Inc. Nominators or prospective candidates may direct inquiries or questions to Senior Consultant X at [—–] or Associate Consultant Y at [—–]. A full position profile can be viewed by going to www.academic-search.com and clicking on current searches. Nominations and applications will be received until the position is filled but, in order to receive full consideration, candidates are encouraged to submit their materials by [date]. (this comes from a current Presidential search announcement, so names have been removed)

Second major difference between academic executive search and ministerial search…”outsiders” can nominate prospective candidates

The search firm did the initial vetting (checking that all applications were complete, that applicants had all the requirements, etc) and once that was done passed on all the applications. The Search Committee then looked through them and separated them into 3 piles; definite second look, maybe second look, definite no.

Once the piles were done, the Search Committee informed the community that the initial vetting was done and that they were going to start the process of phone call interviews with the people who they thought would be a good fit.

Something else the Search Committee did (that no ministerial search committee would do) is give the community a demographic breakdown of everybody who applied.

The phone interviews were done and the committee narrowed the potential candidates down to 7 with whom there would be more in-depth interviews.

During this time the committee asked the community what questions we thought they should ask. It was a given that not every question was going to be asked, but that they were going to ask some of the questions that the community came up with. Those interviews were done in a neutral location and when they were finished, the committee further narrowed the pool down to the final 3.

This is when the uproar happened on the Earlham campus. Why? Because the three finalists were all white males. But the reason there could be an uproar was because the community had been given the demographic information about who applied. There was so much uproar over the final 3 that the committee had to send out a letter to the community explaining why, in light of the demographics, the final 3 were all white males (and not a Quaker in the bunch, which was also a big concern). There were still grumblings, but the process continued.

Each of the three candidates came to campus, met people, and had separate sessions with faculty, staff, and students. There were dinners with outside community leaders. And a final meeting with the Search Committee.

Feedback was gathered from all the different groups after they saw each candidate. But nobody thought (as far as I can tell) that just because feedback was collected, that it meant that feedback was going to be given great weight than other factors.

After due consideration, the committee presented the Board of Trustees with their recommendation that David Dawson be the next President of Earlham. The Board took that recommendation.

Why am I telling this Earlham story in connection to situation going on around Starr King?

Because I believe that UU terminal uniqueness has struck again.

News flash: Starr King is unique. But Starr King is NOT special.

And too many people who are commenting on the sturm-und-drang are acting as if, because Starr King trains ministers, that it is somehow too special to go through the same process as other schools go through to pick their executive leadership.

Yes, there are always exceptions; when big name schools go out and get big names. But that is not the case for most schools.

Starr King is truly unique. Starr King is not special. If the search process works for schools as big as Ohio State or UT-Austin AND for schools as small as Wells or Lawrence or Earlham, it does work well for Starr King.

This UU terminal uniqueness has to stop. If it doesn’t, a whole host of people are going to get hurt in the process.

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