We recently sat down with PhelpsGroup’s Senior Consultant of Education Practice, Michael Dewson, to discuss academic recruiting, his own career as an academic leader, and the future of the field.

Samuel Allemang (Social Media Consultant): Tell us a bit about what you do as Phelps’ Senior Consultant of Education Practice.

Michael Dewson: Well, what I bring to the education sector at Phelps is a long experience in several postsecondary institutions and a good understanding of how they operate. So, when we’re looking for candidates, I have a sense of the kinds of people I can call and get advice from; I get referrals and I have a good sense of what many of the positions involve in different parts of the sector. Bringing that to the table at Phelps means we can direct our search energies the right way, understanding what the sector needs.

SA: You joined Phelps after three decades in academic leadership roles and as a Professor of Psychology. How did your extensive experience within the university environment prepare you for this type of work?

MD: A good deal of what I did did involve, in fact, issues related to searches for positions within the institutions I worked for – I had a lot of involvement in the human resources area – so when we were looking for candidates for positions we were trying to fill, I had a great deal of either oversight or direct involvement in reaching out. So, it wasn’t such a stretch to move from working within an organization like a university to looking at the broader picture from Phelps’ point of view.

SA: Why should an academic institution consider engaging an executive search firm? Under what circumstances?

MD: From my own experience on both sides of the table – that is, at a university and working in a search firm – what is even more clear to me now than when I was in the university is that the search firm can bring a great deal of time and energy and a broader set of connections to the whole business of finding good candidates and of doing the creation of long-lists of potentially qualified candidates that is often harder to do in the universities. The people who are responsible for searches in universities are very busy people and they often may not have the particular connections or the time available to really ensure that they’re getting the most complete list of candidates. Secondarily and equally important, what the search firm can bring to the process is a careful screening of the long-list of candidates in consultation with the institution, the college or the university to narrow down the list of people who are in the general area of the kinds of qualifications and experience that they’re looking for.

SA: What qualities should the academic leaders of today and tomorrow possess? What challenges and what opportunities will they be facing?

MD: Certainly the sectors that I’m familiar with increasingly require academic leaders who bring a range of skills, from really good managerial skills to a lot of the soft skills, the leadership skills, that are critical to building consensus and moving institutions forward through what are generally pretty challenging times. Postsecondary is not an easy field; we need leaders who can both manage well and can relate well to people. Universities and colleges don’t operate by command and control, they operate by consensus (if somewhat grudging consensus), and that requires excellent people skills.

SA: Following up on that, do you find significant cultural differences between institutions?

MD: That’s a good question and I would be partially speculating and partially generalizing, but in general I think that’s true: there are places that have a more entrepreneurial culture, other places that have a more traditional approach to things; some are managerial and technocratically run, others are a little bit more laissez-faire. So you do run into some significant differences and when you’re looking for leaders it’s important to understand the kind of culture the candidates are coming from and the kind of culture the institution operates under.

SA: Ryerson, where you worked for many years, is enjoying tremendous growth. And its priorities seem very modern – urban density, walkability, design; the Digital Media Zone likewise seems to mirror the creative hubs and collaborative workspaces of the tech sector. What could other institutions learn from Ryerson and are its lessons in fact transferable?

MD: I think there are some very general lessons. For example, for a number of years Ryerson has been very focused on trying to identify what their mission should be: given their location, given their role in the system, given the strengths of their past development, what can they bring that’s special and unique? Ryerson sees itself as a city university; they do not see themselves as a brand to spread their tentacles into satellite campuses in other areas; they believe that Ryerson should serve the city and provide part of the infrastructure for a healthy, vital city, and that’s been something that’s impacted many, many programs in different ways. But always the focus has been on how they can be part of the fabric of the Toronto area in meaningful ways. And those kind of discussions are hard to get going, but when you do get them going they can be really important. Different universities obviously have very different environments, and what they need to be doing is constantly asking themselves, “Are we meeting real needs? Are we really providing value to the society in the broader sense?”