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Joseph Aoun, who was a University of Southern California dean, made a secret visit to Northeastern University in Boston before accepting a post as president. He questioned students and staff on innocuous topics like where to find good places to eat.
Joseph Aoun, who was a University of Southern California dean, made a secret visit to Northeastern University in Boston before accepting a post as president. He questioned students and staff on innocuous topics like where to find good places to eat. (Jim Davis/ Globe Staff)

Before taking reins, they survey schools on the sly

On Tuesday , he will be moving into the president's office at Northeastern University, but last spring, Joseph Aoun was moving in the campus shadows.

On a drizzly April day, the University of Southern California dean dressed, by his own account, the part of a spy. He donned sunglasses and a beret. He lifted the collar of his raincoat to obscure most of his face. Then he walked all over campus, questioning students and staff on innocuous topics like where to find good places to eat.

Aoun got a kick out of his disguise. ``I didn't want anyone to recognize me," he said, laughing. But his goal was serious.

He was employing a popular but little-known trick of some candidates for a school's top job: the stealth visit.

More and more in recent years, private university searches have become highly secretive, as higher education has become more competitive. While public universities usually bring several finalists to campus for open meetings, private schools do the opposite.

Interviews are held in airport hotels or corporate offices. (One of Aoun's was at the Ritz-Carlton.) Questioning random faculty and students about the presidency is forbidden. Candidates who don't have roots in the institution often feel a bit in the dark, knowing that even a well-intentioned search committee is likely to give them a biased view.

``From the search committee's perspective, it's almost a seduction," said Lawrence S. Bacow , who became president of Tufts University in 2001 after making several stealth visits to campus as a candidate. ``Rarely do they come forward and say, `Here are all . . . the issues roiling under the surface you are going to discover the first day in office.' "

Candidates say it's important to get a visceral sense of their potential new environment, as anyone considering a new job or a geographical move would do. But the unusual secrecy associated with most presidential searches at private universities makes the stealth visit -- which headhunters say are common -- one of the only ways for a candidate to solicit unofficial points of view.

Most presidents cherished the confidentiality they were afforded as candidates, saying word that they were on the job market could have torpedoed their status in their previous position. Boston officials have suggested they may sacrifice public meetings for finalists for the schools' superintendency if the public process is a deterrent to candidates.

John M. Isaacson , founder of Boston-based search firm Isaacson, Miller , said candidates usually learn enough from the search committee, written materials, news accounts, and trusted friends to make an informed judgment.

But some presidents acknowledge that the secrecy hindered their ability to assess the situation they'd be walking into -- and whether they wanted to walk into it.

``The confidentiality is a very mixed thing," said Stephen Ainlay , former vice president for academic affairs at the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, who became president of Union College in New York last month after a stealth visit. ``I don't think we've figured out the best way to do it."

Last year, Hampshire College in Western Massachusetts tried an unusual approach. It invited the four presidential finalists for open meetings on campus.

The man who was chosen, Ralph J. Hexter , ``knew, and we knew, that the committee was hand-picked," said trustee Sigmund Roos . ``So how does he find the real Hampshire? For the candidates, there was no secret, no cloak, no dagger, but an opportunity to come to campus and ask their own questions."

Hexter said deciding whether to take the job would have been much harder without that visit.

For most, however, the visiting is by stealth or not at all. One weekend, Bacow and his wife got salads in the dining hall, then invited themselves to sit down with a group of students.

When asked if they were prospective parents, Bacow answered that he was thinking of joining the faculty. Since the president also has a faculty appointment, his answer was the truth, although not the whole truth.

Bacow, then chancellor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, returned to take an admissions tour with his administrative assistant, whom he wanted to join him at Tufts. (She took the job.)

Though he did speak confidentially with a few close friends at Tufts, there were things he could only find out for himself.

Were students happy? Was the place well-maintained and welcoming? Would he want to live in the president's house?

The answer to all those questions was yes.

Susan C. Scrimshaw , the new president of Simmons College, walked around campus with her fiancé.

When they asked questions of students, staff, even the security guards, they said they were checking the place out for Scrimshaw's high school-aged niece. (There is a niece and she is thinking about applying.)

Catharine B. ``Cappy" Hill , former provost of Williams College, used a similar ploy -- her 15-year-old daughter -- to visit Vassar College, where she became president last month. Her husband, head of a private school in the Bronx, N.Y. , called a former student, who is a slam poet and squash player. He gave them a tour of campus.

All the presidents report being wowed with the enthusiasm and intellectual energy on the campuses they visited. Aoun, who earned his PhD at MIT, said the Northeastern campus, much changed over the years, was ``a revelation."

But not all stealth visits leave the candidate impressed. Steven H. Kaplan , president of the University of New Haven, said he once considered a high-level public university post but found from talking to students on his stealth visit that the school had been financially ``starved," something the search committee hadn't advertised.

Ronald A. Crutcher interviewed at one liberal arts college, using his daughter as his excuse for a stealth visit.

But several conversations with students suggested racial problems on campus.

Crutcher, who is black, was later recruited by Wheaton College in Norton. He chatted with a black student on his stealth visit there, and the student described a good academic experience despite feeling somewhat isolated.

``When I asked, `did you feel supported by the faculty,' the answer was yes," said Crutcher, now Wheaton's president. ``That was important to me."

Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at bombardieri@globe.com.

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