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Provost's Search Committee Tutorial: A Primer

Please Note: This is not the tutorial but a narrative version of tutorial materials, a primer if you will. Reading through this material will NOT give the necessary certification for serving on a faculty search committee. It is designed instead to offer all who are interested a chance to become familiar with the material covered in the tutorial prior to taking the tutorial and/or a chance to review material and references for individual topics after you have taken the tutorial.

If you would like to actually take the tutorial please click here.


9. Confidentiality

In The Search Committee Handbook: A Guide to Recruiting Administrators, the authors address search committee confidentiality:

Matters of confidentiality prove troublesome to virtually every search committee. The ethic of academe is one of free and open communication, the sharing and testing of ideas and information. Indeed, with most other campus committees, members are expected to report back to colleagues; committee doings, indeed, become a staple for campus gossip.

It is against strong winds, then, that search committees must insist upon totally different norms: no open sharing, no snippets of gossip. The overriding needs are to protect the integrity and candor of member-to-member discussion, and to protect the identity of people (including internal candidates) who have allowed you to consider their names (Marchese and Lawrence, pp.21-22).

A possible departmental scenario:

The following email was sent by Isabel, a search committee member, to Nell, a colleague in the same department who was not on the search committee:


Just between you and me, we did a first round telephone interview today with a fantastic candidate—she seems really excited about our department and I think we may get her. Of course I can’t tell you her name but she is a rising star, recipient of the Young Scientist award and a bunch of incredibly well-funded research grants. It would be great to have another woman in the department. I had to let you know. Oh, and here’s the article reference you asked for.


This scenario portrays a serious confidentiality problem. Why would this be a serious breach of confidentiality? Because of what happened after the email was sent.

Nell had no trouble figuring out who Isabel was referring to, as there was just one woman in their discipline who had won the Young Scientist award in the last few years. She was delighted. She also had 23 things on her “to do” list so she printed the email as a reminder to look at the reference Isabel had mentioned. Then she rushed off to deliver a stack of supply requisitions to Marlin, the departmental administrative assistant, before her next class.

Perhaps you can see what’s coming. Marlin found the copy of the email from Isabel to Nell on the bottom of the stack. He was about to put it in Nell’s box when a call came through about a small emergency. He scrawled a note saying he would be right back and put it on the corner of his desk, not realizing that it was right next to Nell’s email.

A few minutes later John, a senior member of the department who happened not to be on the search committee, strolled into the office with a question for Marlin and saw Marlin’s note. Eventually he got bored waiting and casually glanced at Nell’s email. Then “fantastic candidate” and “Young Scientist award” caught his eye, and he found himself reading it more closely. “Hah!” he thought. “Looks like we’re going to steal Fatima away from Ed Johnson. Serves him right!”

Like Nell, John had known immediately who Isabel was referring to. She would indeed be a prize catch. It also happened that John and Ed, Fatima’s current department chair, had had a very antagonistic relationship for years. Without thinking about the possible repercussions, John shot off an email to Ed: “I see you’re having trouble keeping your young star!”

Ed instantly realized that Fatima was the “young star” and was very surprised she was looking for a new position. He immediately picked up the phone and called Fatima, willing to do whatever it would take to keep her.

Ed’s counter-offer proved very attractive. Fatima was very upset that someone at UVa had breached confidentiality. She decided that she would be better off staying where she was and withdrew her application from UVa.

So a simple “just between you and me” email, a relatively innocent series of events, and an old antagonism resulted in the loss of a topnotch potential candidate.

It is true that Ed might have made a similar counter offer once Fatima had an offer from UVa or when he was contacted for references, but by that time she would have had a chance to develop further relationships with potential future colleagues, the UVa department could have had time to put together a very enticing package to lure this stellar candidate, there would have been no breach of confidentiality to make her question the judgment of her potential colleagues at UVa, and her decision might have been altogether different.


Dowdall, J. 2005. Bad behavior in a search. The Chronicle of Higher Education. 51(32). April 8, 2005. Retrieved on February 15, 2008 from

Marchese T.J. and J.F. Lawrence. 2006. The search committee handbook: A guide to recruiting administrators, 2nd ed. Sponsored by the American Association for Higher Education. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

School of Medicine, Stanford University. 2008. Guide to faculty searches. Retrieved on February 7, 2008 from

Vicker L.A. and H.J. Royer. 2006. The complete academic search manual: A systematic approach to successful and inclusive hiring. Sterling, VA: Stylus.



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