After choosing an expensive search firm, with less experience and fewer guarantees than others, PCC had to declare a failed, or unsuccessful, search after it witnessed its three finalists for president drop out of consideration. As a result, the college terminated its partnership with the search firm prematurely, bringing PCC back to square one in the process of finding a new superintendent-president.
Collaborative Brain Trust (CBT), the consulting firm chosen by the PCC Board of Trustees (BOT) to conduct this past year’s unsuccessful presidential search, was chosen over more experienced firms, including one firm, PPL Inc., which promised to continue the search free of charge in the case of an unsuccessful search.
CBT charged $5,000 per month for their consulting services (yearly total would have amounted to $60,000 if they had continued with PCC for a full year) with onboarding/CEO training for the new superintendent-president included in the price. This “onboarding” training would provide assistance and guidance to the new president during their early period adjusting to the position. PPL, on the other hand, offered their more narrow service focused only on the presidential search for $28,000, plus no more than $4,000 for travel expenses. Their fee included no additional charges for revisions to the process for finding a suitable candidate or a continuation of the search in case of failure.
According to Trustees Ross Selvidge and Anthony Fellow, the firm began its work in mid-to-late November 2017, but PCC discontinued its contract with the firm earlier than expected, around May 2018. This would bring the length of PCC’s contract with CBT to around five months and the total cost of its services to about $25,000.
According to the office of the current PCC Superintendent-President Rajen Vurdien, PCC has paid CBT $20,000 and has yet to be billed for anything further. The contract was ultimately terminated due to the inability of the college to present a finalist for the position of superintendent-president following the search.
After the BOT narrowed down the list of candidates provided to them by CBT, following the Board’s own interviews with the candidates, two of the three finalists dropped out quickly after being named. The third and final candidate, Cliff Davis, dropped out following a letter drafted by the Academic Senate threatening a vote of no confidence if the process continued on with only one candidate who seemed ill-suited to the position.
“It’s one of the most important decisions we can make as a college,” said Valerie Foster, Academic Senate president, on the selection of a new superintendent-president. “We wouldn’t have written that letter if we didn’t think that there were problems with the process.”
The deciding factor in the choice between CBT and PPL, the two final consulting firms considered for the search by the BOT at their meeting in November of 2017, seems to have been the lead consultant assigned to Pasadena by CBT, Sandra Serrano. Serrano is a figure with a storied history in community college management, with extensive ties in these educational networks.
“Those trustees for whom CBT was the first choice argued strongly that Sandra Serrano of CBT had an outstanding reputation previously as Chancellor of [Kern Community College District],” stated Trustee Ross Selvidge. “[She] ‘knew everyone’ in the California community college system who might be prospects for the PCC presidency and thus was well positioned to get the best candidates to apply, and [she] made a good presentation to the Board of Trustees.”
These considerations seem to have overcome any concerns about the cost of CBT’s services or the possibility of a failed presidential search. BOT members seem not to have foreseen this year’s presidential search ending unsuccessfully.
Sandra Serrano did not respond to multiple requests for comment. However, the Vice-President of CBT and the President of PPL, the rival search firm that was not chosen, both responded to the Courier’s questions regarding presidential searches.
“Failed presidential searches are not frequent, but do happen from time to time across the country,” stated Benjamin Duran, President of PPL. “Our company has traditionally stayed with the search until it comes to a successful conclusion. It is part of our business practices.”
Duran declined to comment on the performance of CBT because his firm is currently in the running to be selected for PCC’s next presidential search contract.
In a statement, the Vice-President of CBT, James Walton, said that unsuccessful presidential searches are “certainly not uncommon,” and that many colleges conduct more than one search before a candidate is successfully chosen.
Walton also emphasized that CBT believed unsuccessful searches occurred not due to the search process itself but because of the “buy-in of the college” during the search process, as well as the “follow-on support” for the new president. CBT’s inclusion of training and support for the new president after that individual is selected represented, to them, the idea that a presidential search is only successful if the new president becomes well-integrated with the college and does not end up leaving the college within the first few years.
Selvidge emphasized that the BOT expected to be successful in their first round of the search for a president because “most searches are [successful].” Yet, this sentiment expressed by Selvidge, who stressed to the Courier that he had originally been in favor of PPL, was contradicted somewhat by his fellow Board member, Trustee Linda Wah, who stated that colleges often have to restart their searches. Wah also expressed the idea that a failed search was not something that should be too concerning to the student body.
“You’ll see many of our sister colleges around us have restarted their search several times,” stated Wah. “It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the search firm, but is dependent on a lot of different criteria, such as how many other colleges are out there recruiting, how many candidates are in the pool at that time and whether or not the right fit shows up for the college.”
The calculation on the part of the BOT to go with Serrano and CBT over a more experienced firm that provided guarantees of a successful search seems to indicate that the BOT were very impressed with Serrano before they made their decision to go with CBT. Some voices on campus, however, raised concerns about the effort of Serrano and CBT during the firm’s contract with PCC.
Foster, for one, stated that things at first seemed to be going well with Serrano as the head of the presidential search; she had reached out to Foster and other campus stakeholders to integrate their concerns into the process of drafting the job description for the search. Later, however, Foster began to hear growing concerns over the search and Serrano.
“Someone told me it’s standard process to call sitting presidents across the state to warn them that this position is opening, and encourage them to apply if they fit the job description,” said Foster. “To my understanding, that wasn’t done. I don’t have a whole lot of experience with search firms, so I only found out this wasn’t done after the fact. But, this might have contributed to the poor pool [of candidates]. I know that people had concerns about the pool; It just wasn’t diverse. The feeling was that she didn’t do a whole lot of legwork in terms of attracting diverse candidates to apply.”
This lack of diversity was both in terms of their career backgrounds and in terms of ethnicity, she added.
Wah, however, posited that CBT did a fine job in reaching out to a number of candidates and pulling together “a pretty decent pool” given the circumstances. She said she believed six other colleges were also doing searches, which limited the number of potential candidates willing to commit at the moment.
On potential lack of diversity among the candidates, Walton stated that most initial candidate pools are diverse, and that that was the case during CBT’s work for PCC. He pointed to the college’s search committee, who narrowed the pool down to the finalists, for any further questions on diversity.
Serrano also has a history of conflict with the administration of the largest community college she oversaw as Chancellor of KCCD, Bakersfield College (BC), over hiring decisions and human resources management under her helm. Based on a number of articles appearing in the Bakersfield Californian in 2015, it appears that the new president of BC at the time took action to make much-needed hires when Serrano’s district leadership, who was supposed to be handling such hiring matters, took too long and dragged their feet when BC made repeated requests for the positions to be filled.
This series of events culminated in a leaked job performance review written by Serrano urging the BC president to search for a position in another district, where she could have the “authority she seeks.” Serrano’s anger with the BC president for bucking the county’s bureaucracy led to protracted contract talks that nearly saw the BC president dismissed from her position. The college’s Academic Senate threatened a vote of no-confidence and, after the matter was finally settled, Serrano ended up releasing a letter to the college community urging them all to “move forward” in order to quell the bubbling conflict.
When asked about this history of conflict between Serrano and one of her colleges’ administrations, and whether that history figured into the decision-making on hiring CBT, Selvidge stated that tension between faculty and presidents is common in academia, and that “CBT was hired to help find a president, not to run a college.”
Walton declined to comment on Serrano’s history prior to joining CBT, but remarked that Serrano is one of the most experienced and well-regarded community college leaders in California, and that she has been an excellent consultant for CBT. He also stated that Serrano and CBT held a number of open forums in PCC’s areas of service and that Serrano has always made extra effort in engaging and incorporating students in community initiatives.
With the entire presidential search process in the spotlight following this unsuccessful contract with CBT, the BOT held a special meeting on the morning of June 1 to interview search firms for the next round in the search. Some of the firms previously considered in 2017 are contenders, however CBT did not apply to be considered once again.
In the interim, however, PCC’s current superintendent-president, Rajen Vurdien, volunteered to delay his departure from PCC in order to carry on his duties as president of the college until a new president is found.
Update: PPL was selected to conduct the next stage of the presidential search at the BOT’s June 1 meeting.