Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Educational Leadership, Research and Technology

First Advisor

Dr. Regina Garza Mitchell

Second Advisor

Dr. Andrea Beach

Third Advisor

Dr. Kahler B. Schuemann


Search consultants, organizational identity, small colleges


Search consultants’ perceived expertise in reaching a target audience and generating a pool of qualified candidates has led to their widespread use across higher education, including small, private colleges (Atwell, 2009; CIC, 2018; Johnson & Ferrare, 2013). As small, private colleges confront an unprecedented level of existential stress, they are faced with competing pressures to differentiate themselves through their historical organizational identity while still pursuing change (Baker & Baldwin, 2015; Jaquette, 2013; Stensaker, 2015; Weerts, Freed, & Morphew, 2014). Matters of identity become especially significant during times of leadership transition (MacDonald, 2013). Despite the convergence of these factors, there is a lack of research regarding how organizational identity is communicated during presidential searches for small, private colleges.

This basic interpretive study was conducted to learn how search consultants understand and communicate organizational identity while facilitating presidential searches for small, private colleges. The focus of the research was consultants’ reflections on their interactions with governing boards, search committees, prospective presidential candidates, and other campus stakeholders. An integrated view of organizational identity, comprised of the social actor, social constructionist, and institutional perspectives, was used as a theoretical lens through which to explore the topic (Pratt, Schultz, Ashforth, & Ravasi, 2016). Semi-structured interviews were held with 10 consultants who had facilitated a minimum of three presidential searches for small, private colleges within the past five years.

Three themes emerged as salient to search consultants’ interpretive process: (a) building a composite view of the college, (b) using the search profile as an interpretive tool, and (c) remaining mindful of professional responsibility. Results suggest that search consultants view themselves as actively contributing to the viability of the small-college sector by facilitating a strong match between a college and presidential candidates. They work toward this outcome by systematically building a composite view of the college, comprised of a holistic perspective of the college’s identity, its expressed leadership needs, and existential stressors. Through a recursive and iterative process, search consultants use development of a written search profile as an interpretive tool to refine their understanding. While performing this function, they identify discrepancies between the college’s identity, culture, and strategic vision that could prove problematic during the search process. Results of this study suggest search consultants are guided by a sense of professional responsibility toward both the client college and prospective candidates.

Through qualitative inquiry, this study has addressed the gap in empirical research regarding organizational identity and the facilitated presidential search process in small, private colleges. Furthermore, by illuminating the importance of process to search consultants’ interpretative role, this research has practical implications for individuals and groups involved in a presidential search, primarily: (a) search consultants, (b) search committees, (c) governing boards, and (d) prospective presidential candidates.

Access Setting

Dissertation-Open Access