The Chronicle of Higher Education's Career Network
Monday, May 20, 2002

The Trouble With Reference Checks

I can always tell when hunting season in academe is about to end. Calls from headhunters in search of interesting candidates are way down; reference calls from screening committees are way up. Between February and May of each year I can expect three or four calls a week from people wanting my opinion about other people.

Given my own professional background (former university president), most of the calls are about candidates for presidencies or provostships. In some cases I am called because the candidate listed me as a reference. In most cases, committee members call me because they know of some connection I have with the prospect.

For me, serving as a reference is an honor and an opportunity to help colleagues. I try to be helpful and polite; I return calls promptly; and I strive to provide accurate and forthright answers to the caller's questions. I admit, however, that lately this task has become less pleasant, more time-consuming, and at times downright irksome.

I have noticed, for instance, that callers always seem to be in a rush. In April and May, the rush gives way to frenzy. Based on my own experience, I suspect that, after dawdling for months over procedural issues and struggling to find meeting times for large committees, the callers feel pressure to get the job done. Some committee members try to save time by seeking recommendations via e-mail. This method, of course, allows for only "canned" questions to be asked -- one of several reasons why it should not be used to check references.

Callers in a rush, however, could make effective use of e-mail to send the reference-giver some background information about the position and the recruiting institution. This year, I have been keeping track: Only 20 percent of the callers bothered to send me such information. In some cases I was well prepared for the call, either because the candidate had provided background information on the search or because I happened to have firsthand knowledge of the campus. Most of the time I found myself answering questions without adequate background and context.

I have also noticed that answering reference calls takes more time than it used to. Committees are using lists of "canned" questions, and the lists are getting longer. Frequently I have to answer two or three versions of the same question. The questions reveal little about the context in which the successful candidate will actually do the job. They reveal much about the political compromises struck by committee members before the search even began.

The first few questions are easy to answer: "How long and in what capacity have you known the applicant?" or "Describe his/her strongest qualities and possible weaknesses." The trouble begins when the caller proceeds to questions that I cannot answer because I don't know enough about the institution or the position.

I used to think that callers did not provide such information because they assumed I was familiar with their campuses. I was wrong. Many callers do not provide background information because they do not believe context matters. How else can I explain some of the questions?

For instance, callers ask: "Is Dr. X 'ready' for a presidency?" Even when I know the candidate really well, I cannot give a meaningful answer to that. I can comment on some generic qualities, such as professional experience, motivation, integrity, and so forth. But the caller is at Dogleg State College. I have no clue as to whether or not Dr. X is "ready" for that presidency.

After the preliminaries come the perennials -- questions that appear on every list at every institution: "Would Dr. Y make a good provost?" I don't know. Tell me what the title means and what the responsibilities of the position are at Blue Spruce University. "Does she have the support of the faculty?" In most cases an honest answer might be: "It depends; Dr. Y works with several kinds of faculty members, and they are not all of one mind." But, of course, I say no such thing for fear that an honest answer may scuttle a good person's candidacy.

Another perennial: "How does Dr. Y relate to students?" I have learned over the years that most callers are not interested in an assessment of the candidate's commitment to students' education. Instead, they want to know how the candidate handles the politics of student involvement in budget issues, personnel appointments, and other such matters. This an especially difficult question to answer meaningfully and honestly. With the exception of small residential colleges, the reality is that most provosts and presidents do not have a lot of direct interactions with students. For better or worse, other issues and other constituencies make greater demands on their time. Here again, out of concern for the candidate, I draw on the reserve of clichés that sound good to fellow academics, and come up with the blandest of answers.

Having gotten past the preliminaries and the perennials, the caller gets to the heavy stuff -- a bit of discrete muckraking: "Can you tell me why Dr. X is leaving his current position?" Sometimes I do know. Perhaps Dr. X's appointment expired or was not renewed. Or perhaps Dr. X needs to relocate for personal reasons. If I am aware of some problem -- for instance, the candidate's weak performance or past conflicts with trustees or legislators -- I do not fudge. In many cases, my comments confirm what the caller already knows or suspects anyway. But in many cases this question seems inappropriate. Most candidates for whom I have served as a reference are under no pressure to leave their current positions; they are simply looking for advancement or new challenges.

The pièce de résistance -- what I call the arrogance factor -- usually comes at the end of the interview. The caller asks: "Tell me why we should consider Dr. Y for this position." At this point, I usually repeat what I said in response to the preliminary questions. I comment again on the candidate's good qualities. In the interest of keeping the candidate and myself out of trouble, I do not let on that I find this question patronizing and irritating. I remember times when the question sounded simply comical.

A couple of years ago, for instance, a talented former colleague of mine was a candidate for a presidency at a university that had chewed up three presidents in seven years. I wasn't sure why he wanted the job, but I agreed to serve as a reference. Three members of the screening committee came to visit. When we got to the "Why should we consider Dr. Z" part of the conversation, I came close to laughing in their faces. I would have liked to reply: "No, you tell me why a candidate of Dr. Z's caliber should consider moving to your institution!" Of course, I didn't. My former colleague did not get the job; but my conscience was clear -- I had been at my best behavior.

Conversations with colleagues around the country suggest that my experience with screening committees is not unusual. Surely we can do better than this when we recruit leaders for an enterprise that is critically important to the future of our nation and the world. I have a few suggestions:

Clara M. Lovett is president emerita of Northern Arizona University.

Copyright2002 by The Chronicle of Higher Education