Navigating a virtual provost search during the pandemic

Business meeting online

The below piece tells the story of Cal State Fullerton’s experience conducting a provost search virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic. The story is written from two perspectives: the first from the institution’s Vice President of Human Resources, Diversity, and Inclusion and Search Committee Chair; and the second from the now sitting provost. By sharing their experience, the article authors hope other institutions that find themselves embarking on a search in this continued virtual environment can gain ideas that positively impact the process.

Perspective #1: David Forgues, Search Committee Chair and Vice President of Human Resources, Diversity, and Inclusion

When our interim president was made permanent by the board in May of 2019, high on his list of priorities was to search for and appoint a new provost. Three interim provosts had served in the position since the last permanent provost departed. As we moved into fall and kicked off the search, we had no idea what was in store. We planned for this search along the normal cycle with groundwork to be completed in fall and advertising and recruitment over winter break and into the start of the spring semester. That would set us up for first round interviews in February and March 2020 and campus interviews before the end of the term. We were excited for our new team member to join us for our annual cabinet retreat over the summer.

With a diverse and engaged search committee formed–of which I was fortunate to be named chair–the plan unfolded nicely. Our advertisements and outreach efforts yielded an extremely strong pool of highly qualified candidates who were excited about the opportunity to serve our campus community. We struggled to narrow down the pool to those we wanted to engage with further. After much deliberation, we identified an excellent group of semi-finalists. In the last week of February, I contacted the candidates to invite them to first-round Zoom interviews planned for mid-March. By that time, COVID was consuming more and more of our attention each day but none of us yet grasped what the next few weeks would bring.

In the blur of the next few weeks, I didn’t need to focus on the search: the first round was set and it was just a waiting game for the date to arrive. And then the world changed and changed again. By the time the interviews drew near, we had shifted to virtual delivery of classes and all our faculty and staff were temporarily telecommuting with very limited onsite operations. My heart sank as I realized we were not in a place to be able to keep our appointments with our candidates. We made the painful decision to call them and postpone our search. I feared that we would likely not be able to pick the search back up given how much of our energy was going into our pandemic response.

April 2020: Restarting the search virtually

As we returned from spring break in late March of 2020 and started to get settled into our new reality, it was time to revisit the search. We needed our new provost and we had amazing candidates: we were ready to pivot and see if we could still complete a high-level search in the middle of a pandemic. After all, we were asking our students–more than half of whom are first-generation–to be nimble and adapt on the fly, so we had an obligation to mirror that in our leadership as well.

I brought the search committee together and we agreed that at least for the first round, we were ready to be on Zoom. When I called the candidates to reconnect and check back in, they were all still excited about the opportunity. I was honest in sharing that I didn’t know how the rest of the search would work but I was confident we could get through the first round and, if they were on board, we would figure it out as we went. I let them know that I needed their feedback throughout the process and that we would do everything we could to make sure we got to know each other well enough for them to make an informed decision should we make an offer. We were in this together.

The first-round interviews went off without a hitch and we again struggled to narrow down our choices from such a strong pool. We settled on three candidates. I started to feel that navigating this process during a pandemic was a bonding moment for us with the candidates: perhaps this could work! It was then time to figure out how to hold what would typically have been a day and a half in-person campus interview, remotely.

Navigating the world of Zoom meetings

Despite our current reality, we found that community members from across campus actively wanted to engage, provide feedback, and otherwise interact with our candidates. Some of this was easy to navigate: we moved the lunch hour the deans normally would have had with the candidates to Zoom, and did the same for breakfast with the cabinet. We worried slightly more about making dinner with the president into a virtual meeting, for fear that a Zoom dinner would not allow both parties to get to know each other in enough depth, but we mitigated this by encouraging the candidates to engage with the president further as the process unfolded. I was learning from my other daily meetings that virtual meetings with about 15 participants or fewer still worked fairly well for an open forum kind of format, so we also conducted each candidate’s meetings with the search committee, the academic senate executive committee, the AVPs in academic affairs, and student leaders via Zoom. Those sessions proceeded well and gave both the participants and the candidates the ability to dialogue and ask questions of one another.

The campus open forum was another step we had to figure out how to navigate. Usually, we would plan for 100 or so campus community members to attend an open forum to hear the candidates introduce themselves, share their vision for the position, and take questions from the group. It usually flows well, fills the hour, and sees healthy engagement. So how could we best replicate that virtually? I knew the virtual setting would lead to higher attendance because people wouldn’t have to physically rush across campus in between meetings. I also knew it would not work to have several hundred people try to ask live questions. Our solution was to set up an email address to solicit question in advance. Our IT team suggested running each session like a webinar: I would moderate, introducing the candidates and then reading the questions that were sent in advance as well as any that came in through the chat box during the session. The audience could see me when I was talking and the candidates when they were talking. Of course, it wasn’t perfect: the candidates could not see any of the participants, and it was a challenge to work in the many questions we received during the hour’s time. But we were working with what we had in the age of COVID, and it did a decent job allowing the campus community and the candidates to get to know each other. I was thrilled with the attendance as each session drew nearly 400 participants. As an added benefit, we were able to record the presentations so they could be shared with anyone who had a scheduling conflict, thereby increasing the number of people who got to see and hear from the candidates. And our president was able to watch the presentations to learn more about them. Both of these things would not have been possible in our traditional on campus format.

So—in sum–that’s how we did our on-campus interviews. My biggest fear throughout the process was that campus constituents wouldn’t feel as though they got a good sense of the candidates and vice versa. To gauge this, we created a campus feedback form through Qualtrics that we distributed electronically. The feedback we received was, fortunately, positive about both the candidates and the process. I checked in with the candidates constantly during this period: I wanted to share with them and send them as much information as possible, so I tried to be an open book. After the campus interviews, I wanted to know what else they needed to feel like they could make a decision if we made an offer. They all shared that they were comfortable with how the process went and were ready to move forward.

My goal for the outcome of a search is always to have amazing on campus interviews that result in all of the candidates being viable and interested. Until this provost search, I had never met that mark. It took a pandemic and an outstanding pool of candidates to deliver to the president an excruciatingly difficult decision. In May of 2020 our president extended an offer to one of the candidates and she accepted! We are so lucky to have found our new provost.

The takeaway for others who might be reading these words is this: as you plan for searches this academic year, know that it is possible, even in a virtual world, to have a successful outcome. Work closely with your candidates and your campus stakeholders. Be flexible and use technology to your advantage. Try to replicate your on-campus process as much as possible and pivot where you need to. There are some amazing candidates out there right now and one might just be the perfect fit for your campus.

Perspective #2: Carolyn Thomas, Candidate and now Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs

In March of 2020 when I got the call from David that Fullerton had decided to postpone their search, I thought we’d be back in touch in a couple of weeks: that’s how long we thought we’d be out of the office when the pandemic began. A month later, life had changed dramatically. My husband and I were both trying to navigate working from home while keeping our second grader focused on Zoom school and simultaneously supporting our older kids whose learning (and life plans) were also disrupted. When David called to let me know that the first-round interviews were going forward at Fullerton—and on Zoom no less! —I felt very differently than I had the previous fall when I had first sent in my materials for the provost position. Everything felt uncertain: health, jobs, education, the future. Talking with David on the phone, though, sparked my enthusiasm: he’s an optimistic, creative, and kind person, and he wasn’t a recruiter. So, I said yes to the first-round interview. As we were asking our faculty to work around the clock to re-learn how to teach, I reasoned that the least I could do is learn how to do a Zoom interview.

As many people know by now, interviewing on Zoom is a strange experience. As a candidate, I spent the week or two before the interview thinking about how I could prepare myself for possible questions I would be asked. And, of course, I did my homework on the search committee members and the campus. I had my prep binder ready to go. It was only a couple of days before the first-round interview that I realized I also had to think about the logistics in a way I wasn’t used to. I’d been a candidate in previous searches, and I was familiar with the process of “going” to interview: making sure the suit is dry cleaned, the charger is in the suitcase, checking and rechecking flight times just to be sure. With traditional searches, your job is to get to the airport, and once you arrive others typically help you take it from there. But this time I wasn’t going anywhere. That’s probably why it took a while to dawn on me that I did in fact need a travel plan. My house had become my workplace, my husband’s workplace, and our kids’ elementary and high schools. Wifi was unreliable; quiet space was hit or miss.

I found a space I could use and practiced in that location the day before. I realized my lighting was bad, so I found a lamp to ensure my face didn’t have any strange shadows. I considered different backgrounds, and finally decided to use my backyard landscape: a combination of the pastoral and the familiar. And I actually practiced answering possible questions while sitting in a Zoom room, just to make sure I was used to the setting. I wrote myself some notes to consult during the interview: use people’s names when responding to questions (since it’s impossible on Zoom for people to know you’re looking at them); keep answers short to allow for follow up (there’s a tendency on Zoom to be long winded since you can’t absorb in-room subtle social cues); be animated! (on video people tend to come across with a flat affect unless they’re working to project emotion).

The interview was, in the end, similar to other in-person interviews I had experienced. The committee was engaged and interested. The questions were good. The host (David) was warm, professional, and efficient. My preparation, I felt, paid off because my technology worked, the lighting was effective, and I came across appropriately animated and enthusiastic. I was glad that I had practiced. There was also an unexpected benefit of the Zoom setting: while I was talking, I could see all of the committee members at once. This allowed me to see at a glance when a head or two were nodding or when someone leaned forward in their seat. I could see when someone looked confused or quizzical. Unlike in an in-person setting, where my attention would be primarily focused on the speaker who asked a question, I was able to scan the room. This allowed me to follow up on a couple of items in the candidate question section at the end to make sure I had addressed both spoken and unspoken questions during the session.

In April, I was thrilled to get word that I had been selected as a finalist. It confirmed my own sense from the first-round interview that the position and community were a great match for my experience and values. I used the same process to prepare for the “campus visit” as I had for my first-round interview: I made sure I had a quiet space for the two-day process; I checked technology; I practiced possible questions; and I wrote myself notes to remind me to do small things to combat the myopic tendencies of Zoom rooms. David was a great campus partner. He made sure I had a comprehensive list of the meetings I was to take during my visit, and built in sufficient down time for me between sessions. As we have all discovered, 45 minutes on Zoom can feel like two hours. Interviewing on Zoom is particularly exhausting because of the pace: there is no up-and-down-the-elevator small talk, no leisurely campus tours, no down time over meals. As a candidate, you’re simply logging in repeatedly to virtual meeting rooms where people are already waiting for you. Because of this, I appreciated Fullerton’s human-centered approach to my schedule. It allowed me to bring my best to the meetings, and even if I had less time with campus constituents than I might have had in-person I was showing up as the best version of myself in each interaction. Even the public forum was handled in a way that made it easy for me to shine: David served as host and helped moderate all of the questions from the audience. While I wished I could see them directly, the efficiency of having a moderator helped me answer more questions than I probably would have been able to in person. It also encouraged me to keep my answers succinct because I couldn’t see the question asker to extend an answer or regroup in response to their reaction.

Perhaps the part I was most nervous about as a Zoom finalist was the interview with my potential boss. Normally in an on-campus interview process, provost candidates have multiple points of interaction with the president or chancellor. There’s a shared meal, at minimum. There may also be a more formal interview session, a ride to or from the airport, or a joint campus tour. In Zoomville, a meal “together” felt like it would be forced and awkward. Further, dinner after a full day of remote interviewing wouldn’t be a place I could show up as my best. Tours and airport rides were off the table. So what I had was one more Zoom meeting at the end of that first long day. I was tired from the back-to-back sessions sitting alone at my computer all day, and I was nervous. In person, those kinds of “meeting-the-person-who-holds-your-future-in-their hands” nerves can be tempered with a handshake, with small talk about the office décor, or by taking in and responding to someone’s non-verbal cues. Zoom doesn’t afford those things. Fortunately for me, Fram Virjee—CSUF’s President—is exceedingly welcoming, knowledgeable, and easy to talk to. I realized when it was over that we had had a true back and forth about important issues facing the campus and ways we could work together, and that our conversation had run well over its allotted time. Because it was so easy to feel comfortable with President Virjee during the discussion—even within the remote environment of the computer screen—I felt especially good about how it would feel to work with him in person.

Fast forward to the present, and my family and I have relocated to Fullerton. I am now a Zoom-based provost, conducting meetings, connecting with students, getting to know the community, and attending events “across” campus, all in remote fashion. The things I learned in my Zoom interviews are serving me well in this new context. And while I long for the time when we can return “home” to campus, I feel that the search process set me up very well to truly feel that I belong here on campus, and that my colleagues seem to feel the same way about me. It’s a sensation that is, in fact, quite the opposite of being “remote.”