Two Perspectives on Navigating a High-Level Search in the Middle of the Pandemic

Spring 2021
David Forgues and Carolyn Thomas

The pandemic and its fallout not only disrupted day-to-day HR tasks, but also turned many well-honed HR processes upside down.

In the spring of 2020, David Forgues, vice president of human resources, diversity, and inclusion at the California State University, Fullerton (Cal State Fullerton), suddenly found himself leading the search for a new provost when in-person interactions were no longer possible. This article highlights both his perspective of the search and the perspective of Carolyn Thomas, Cal State Fullerton’s newly appointed provost. Forgues and Thomas recount their thoughts on finding creative ways to engage campus stakeholders in the interview process, keeping lines of communication open, creating a remote “travel plan” to make the most of online interviews, and taking a human-centered approach to a virtual environment.

Learning to Be Nimble

David: When Cal State Fullerton’s interim president was made permanent by the board in May 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.

I was fortunate to be named chair of a diverse and engaged search committee. We planned for the search guided by our normal cycle — initial groundwork completed in the fall, advertising and recruitment over winter break and early into the spring semester, first-round interviews conducted in February and March, and campus-wide interviews before the end of the term. We were excited for our new team member to come on board and participate in the annual cabinet retreat over the summer.

The beginning stages of the plan unfolded seamlessly. 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. In fact, we struggled to narrow down the pool to those we wanted to engage with further. After much deliberation, we identified a group of semi-finalists. Interview dates were confirmed. And then the world changed.

COVID-19 was consuming more and more of our attention each day, but our search committee hadn’t yet grasped what the future would bring. By the time the interviews drew near, Cal State Fullerton had shifted to virtual delivery of classes, and all of our faculty and staff were temporarily telecommuting with very limited on-site operations. My heart sunk as I realized we were not at a place to keep our appointments with our provost candidates. Of course, our candidates were dealing with the same issues on their campuses. We made the painful decision to postpone our search. I feared that we would not be able to pick the search back up in 2020 since all of our energy was devoted to our pandemic response.

As we returned from spring break and started to get settled into our new reality, it was time to revisit the search. We needed a new provost, and we had amazing candidates waiting for us to provide next steps. It was time to pivot and see if we could still complete a high-level search in the middle of the pandemic. As we were asking our students (more than half of whom are first-generation) to be nimble and adapt on the fly, we had to mirror that in all facets of our leadership, including this search.

As we were asking our students (more than half of whom are first-generation) to be nimble and adapt on the fly, we had to mirror that in all facets of our leadership, including this search.

Carolyn: When I got the call in March that the search committee had decided to postpone their search, I thought we’d be back in touch in a couple of weeks. That’s how long we all thought we’d be out of the office when the pandemic began. But by the time mid-April came around, life had changed dramatically. My husband and I were both trying to navigate working from home while keeping our second grader focused on school via Zoom and supporting our older kids whose learning and life plans were also disrupted.

When David let me know that we would be moving forward with first-round interviews on Zoom, I felt very differently than I had back in the fall when I’d first sent in my materials for the provost position. Everything felt uncertain: health, jobs, education, the future. Talking with David on the phone, though, reignited my enthusiasm. He’s an optimistic, creative and kind person. So, I said yes to the first-round interview. As we were asking our faculty at my former institution to work around the clock to re-learn how to teach, the least I could do was learn how to do a Zoom interview.

A Bonding Experience

David: I brought the search committee together, and we agreed that at least for the first round we would move forward with Zoom interviews. The interviews wouldn’t be that different than if they were in person, and we were all improving our Zoom comfort level by then. When I called the candidates, they all seemed excited about the opportunity. I made sure to be open and honest with them. 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 out the rest. My biggest worry was that the chosen candidate wouldn’t want to accept a new position and move during the pandemic. I let them know that I needed their feedback throughout the process and that we’d do everything we could to make sure we got a good sense of who they are and that they got to know us well enough to make a decision, should we make an offer. We were in this together.

The first-round interviews went off without a hitch and again we struggled to narrow down 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 these candidates. Perhaps this could work! Now it was time to figure out how to hold what would typically be a day-and-a-half campus interview, remotely.

I started to feel that navigating this process during a pandemic was a bonding moment for us with these candidates.

Creating a Remote “Travel Plan”

Carolyn: Interviewing on Zoom is a strange experience, as many people know by now. As a candidate, I spent the week or two before the interview thinking mostly about how I could prepare myself for possible questions I’d be asked. And, of course, I did my homework on the search committee members and on the campus. I had my prep binder ready to go. Then, I realized just a couple of days before the interview that 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, that the charger is in the suitcase, checking and rechecking flight times just to be sure. For a typical job search, your job is to get to the airport, and once you arrive, others help you take it from there. But I wasn’t going anywhere. That’s probably why it wasn’t until a couple of days before the first-round interview that I realized I needed a “travel plan.”

My house had become my workplace, my husband’s workplace and our kids’ elementary and high schools. Wi-Fi was unreliable; quiet space was hit or miss. Thankfully, I found a quiet space I could use and went to the location and practiced the day before. I realized that the lighting was bad, so I found a lamp that ensured my face didn’t have any strange shadows. I looked at Zoom backgrounds and decided to use my backyard landscape — opting for a combination of the pastoral and 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 difficult 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 being intentional about projecting emotion).

The interview was, in the end, similar to in-person interviews I’d experienced. The committee was engaged and interested. The questions were good. The host (David) was warm, professional and efficient. My preparation paid off because I felt organized, my technology worked, the lighting was effective, and I looked appropriately animated and enthusiastic. I was glad that I had gone over my remote “travel plan” beforehand.

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 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 on the speaker who asked a question, I was able to scan the room. This allowed me to follow up on a couple of issues in the candidate question section at the end to make sure I had addressed both spoken questions and unspoken issues during the session.

Adapting Engagement Opportunities

David: Despite our current reality, community members from across campus wanted to interact with our candidates. They wanted to engage and to provide feedback. Some of that was easy: the deans would normally have lunch with the candidates, so we scheduled the lunch hour and asked everyone to bring their lunch to the virtual meeting. We did the same for breakfast with the cabinet. And dinner with the president could be done virtually as well, although we worried that the president and the candidates wouldn’t get to know each other well enough with just this interaction. We dealt with this by encouraging the candidates to engage further with the president as the process unfolded.

We even sent candidates the link to the virtual campus tour for prospective students. It seemed to me from my daily meetings on Zoom that any meeting with about 12-15 participants or fewer was manageable for an open forum format. This worked for our search committee meeting with each candidate as well as with meetings with the academic senate executive committee, the AVPs in academic affairs and the meeting with our student leaders. Those sessions proceeded well with participants having the ability to ask questions, as well as the candidates being able to respond and ask questions of their own. The conversations flowed naturally. So, that just left the campus open forum to figure out.

Usually, we’d plan for around 100 campus community members to attend an open forum for a provost candidate. We like the candidate to spend 10 or 15 minutes introducing themselves and sharing their vision for the position before taking questions from the floor. It usually flows well, fills the hour and provides a great engagement opportunity. So how could we do our best to replicate that virtually?

I knew we would have high attendance because it’s easier to log into a Zoom meeting than it is to rush over to a physical meeting room in between other pressing matters on everyone’s schedules. I noted that having a large number of folks asking live questions might not be the best way to go about the meeting. Our solution was to set up an email address to solicit questions in advance. Our IT team suggested running each session like a webinar: I would moderate, introduce the candidate and then read the questions that were sent via email in advance and also live questions that were shared with me in the “Ask a Question” function in the webinar.

Unexpected Benefits

Of course, it wasn’t perfect. The candidates could not see any of the participants and I had to try to work in as many of the questions as I could. In the age of COVID-19, I give it a B- in terms of meeting the goal of allowing for the campus and the candidates to get to know each other. However, I was thrilled with the attendance as each session had nearly 400 participants, which was way more than we would have drawn to in-person events. As an added benefit, we were able to record the presentations so that they could be shared with anyone who had a time conflict, thereby increasing the number of people who got to see the candidates. Further, our president was able to watch the presentations to learn more about the candidates. None of this would have happened in our traditional on-campus format.

Throughout the process, my biggest fear was that the campus would feel that it didn’t get a good sense of the candidates and vice versa. However, we created a campus feedback form through Qualtrics that we distributed and collected electronically. Feedback that we received was positive about the candidates and about the process. I checked in with the candidates frequently because I wanted to remain as open as possible. 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 to have amazing on-campus interviews that result in all the candidates being viable and interested. Until now, I had never met that mark. It took a pandemic and an outstanding pool of candidates to deliver to the president a very difficult decision, but we are so thankful to have found our new provost.

A Human-Centered Approach

Carolyn: 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 this position and this community was 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; I wrote notes to remind myself of 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 meetings during my visit, while still ensuring I had down time between sessions. As most of us have experienced by now, 45 minutes on Zoom can feel like two hours. Interviewing on Zoom is particularly exhausting because of the pace: there are no elevator chats, no leisurely campus tours, no down time over meals. As a candidate, you’re simply logging in, repeatedly, to rooms where people are already waiting for you. I appreciated the 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 bringing my best to each of those interactions. Even the public forum was handled in a way to make it easy for me shine. David served as host and fielded all of the questions from the audience. While I wished that I could have seen the attendees, his efficient way of asking the questions quickly helped me get more questions answered than I would’ve been able to in person. It also encouraged me to keep my answers succinct (thereby allowing more time for additional questions), because I couldn’t see the asker and try 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 a campus interview process, provost candidates have multiple points of interaction with the president or chancellor. There’s a shared meal at minimum, and sometimes a 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 weird. And a virtual 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, or with small talk about the office décor, or taking in someone’s non-verbal cues. Zoom doesn’t afford those things.

Fortunately for me, the president was 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 we’d gone well over our allotted time. Because it was so easy to feel comfortable with them during the discussion — within the remote environment of the computer screen — I felt especially good about how it would feel to work with them in person.

Four months later my family and I relocated to Cal State Fullerton. I’m 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 to campus, I feel that the search process set me up well to truly feel I belong here on campus, and that my colleagues — by and large — feel the same way. It’s a sensation that’s, in fact. quite the opposite of being “remote.”

David: As you plan for searches this academic year, know that it’s 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 on your campus.

About the authors: David Forgues is vice president of human resources, diversity, and inclusion; and Carolyn Thomas is provost and vice president for academic affairs, both of California State University, Fullerton. 


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