Committee Lessons

Actually, this should more accurately be called “things I learned from the people on the EMU Presidential Search Committee,” because my weekends spent working with that amazing group of people opened my eyes in such unexpected ways. Our end goal was to choose a president for the university, which we succeeded in doing. On the way, though, I experienced more vocational discernment and general life lessons than I had in the rest of the year combined.

I was so grateful for the opportunity… here’s some things that I took away.

  1. Be an Enabler: It’s appropriate to “call in” people who aren’t being heard.

One of the more outspoken people on the search committee impressed me when he consistently took the time to ask the opinion of people who he thought had a direct stake in the issue at hand, but had not yet offered their wisdom.

At first I wondered whether it felt awkward or condescending for the person being invited to share, especially in this group full of highly educated and successful adults who, in theory, know when they have something worth saying. As I watched these interactions happen (and occasionally was invited to speak in a similar fashion), I realized that this invitation was actually empowering and often brought up points that would have been missed otherwise.

Here’s a photo that my friend Abby Graber took (!!) of my 30 seconds of fame at MCUSA convention in 2015… The ONLY reason I’m at the mic is because my table group convinced me that I needed to share my input on the given topic (the prevalence of sexual abuse on college campuses) because no other young people had yet spoken. I would not have been brave or confident enough to do so without that encouragement.

In addition, by clarifying why you think someone is particularly qualified to speak on a certain topic (for example, “Sally, I would like to hear your opinion on this prediction because I know you’ve spent the last two decades studying economic trends” or “Bob, since you are a high school teacher, what would you add about college recruitment strategies?”), you pave the way for their opinions to hold greater weight than they might have held without introduction. Although everyone has equal ground to trumpet their ideas on social media, some people actually are more qualified to speak than others.

  1. Bravely Take Control: What to do when you are delegated a task

When someone in leadership delegates a task to you, they have already decided to forfeit their complete control of the methods that you take to accomplish the goal. Don’t clunk through a task without making any significant changes to the method, especially if you don’t think that the way it’s been done in the past is the best way.

It is likely that you were delegated this task because you have the time and creative energy to do it more effectively than the person in leadership would have. For this reason, this is a perfect opportunity for you to take control in producing a fantastic product for them in a way that is conducive with your strengths/skills. It shouldn’t be the same as the product that would have been produced without you.

  1. Label Your References

When you give a list of references, explain who your references are: both what they do and what their relationship to you is. Make sure they are relevant to the work you are seeking. This seems obvious, but it sure was helpful when candidates explained how they knew a reference or listed a reference who people on the committee were familiar with.

  1. Push back against the “Infrastructure of Immobility” (Skim this one if you don’t feel like reading about a specific little piece of MEA’s search process policy that bothered me)

This one is a little more difficult to explain, and also I’m not sure where I got this idea. I apologize if I stole the phrase from someone (if I did, please call me out! I want to remember the conversation that sparked it).

But what I mean by the infrastructure of immobility is the way that things are set up to NOT change.

I was unsatisfied with the process that Mennonite Education Agency has for the appointment of a new president, because it favors picking the “safe” option. Long term, this has been effective in maintaining the inertia of Mennonite colleges. But, with the world changing as quickly as it is, I am not convinced that “safe” will be sufficient in the coming decades.

EMU’s most recent presidents… just hangin’ out on the lawn

The goal of the search process is to maintain the anonymity of all applicants except the one who will ultimately be selected as president in order not to discourage those who already have high-power jobs from applying. Once the search committee has selected a candidate, this person is presented to the Board. On Board approval, the candidate visits the college campus to “try-out” for their new position though speeches and constituent group meetings.

But here’s the problem: once presented to the Board, the candidate loses his or her anonymity. The search committee is therefore under significant pressure to choose a candidate that will be confirmed by the Board so as to avoid the extremely awkward situation of this candidate being turned down. A rejected candidate could mean another round of exhausting interviews for the existing committee… or even the creation of a completely new search committee!

When the incentives for choosing an “easily confirmable” candidate are pushed this high, we have crowded out the (more morally compelling?) incentives that we might have had for choosing a “risky” candidate.

So what constitutes a “risky” candidate? And why might that be a good thing?

The sad truth is that there still exists a sense that a minority candidate (whether a minority due to race, country of origin, sex, gender identity, culture, religious affiliation, etc) will have trouble with development (fundraising) and is therefore a “risk”. Because the board is, in part, a fundraising body, this suggestion may surface and potentially be extremely hurtful to the candidate, whether or not the concerns are founded.

But how are we supposed to combat these trends if we don’t get used to seeing minorities in leadership? And shouldn’t the church be leading the charge in creating these opportunities? Otherwise, we are in serious danger of held captive in a space where even a “majority-minority” group is still incredibly disenfranchised.

For Mennonite colleges, a risky candidate might even be someone who is outside of traditional Mennonite circles. If no one on the Board has ever had a college roommate who knew your cousin or remembers you from that statement you wrote during the merger in 2000 or had dinner at your house (this seriously came up often in our “disclosures about personal relationships with potential candidates” time), it might be a sign that you’re not “Mennonite” enough. Which is a shame, because there are some pretty cool people out there who weren’t born Mennonite but are deeply committed to Anabaptist values.

The Board will doubtlessly approve a safe candidate who has been carefully vetted by the committee, but this doesn’t give them a chance to see what they are missing in the applicants not presented for candidacy. For this reason, I propose that future committees be offered the opportunity to present two candidates to the Board.

It could be that the Board is ready and excited to explore the possibility of a “risky” candidate, but they aren’t given a chance. It could be that, upon prayerful consideration, the Board would still choose the safer candidate. However, planting that possibility of change is crucial in demolishing the assumption that the “infrastructure of immobility” is unchangeable. This is especially important in a world that is so desperate for fresh air.

President Susan being interesting and engaging

I want to make it clear that this is only a theoretical problem, because President Schultz Huxman is a kick-ass woman who will do exciting things at EMU. But I think we need to stay cognizant of the potential pitfalls of our “infrastructure of immobility” as we move forward into an increasingly complicated political and economic climate.

  1. God Speaks in Silence

A huge percentage of the candidates that we interviewed attributed their physical, emotional, and spiritual health to self-care routines including journaling, meditation and exercise. If the men and women who are the busiest, most effective and brilliant leaders in the church take the time to spend time out in nature, write down their thoughts and cultivate a quiet mind to create space for God to speak to them, then these must be worthwhile practices.

  1. How to know you’re an adult

What a weird and exciting life transition, when your friends and peers become colleagues, partners, and coconspirators in real-world work. This realization, I believe, is adult-ing.


One thought on “Committee Lessons

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s