Outlook: Wrong Answer

From donor meetings to job interviews—do you have the right responses when asked about difficult subjects?

By Sheila Murphy

Graphic by A. Richard Allen

"Should we be a sanctuary campus?" Until this question, the interview for the college presidency had been going well. But with this muddled response, the position slipped away from a candidate better versed in restructuring debt and creating new academic programs than in the national political issues that are increasingly shaping the tenor of college campuses.

Campus leaders are increasingly quizzed on a variety of tricky topics, from diversity and immigration to student protests and free speech. The questions can arise during a search committee interview or a donor visit as well as from student activists or the news media. Whether you're an administrator or advancement professional, your answers should be thorough, honest, and realistic—none of which is easy. These questions have no right answers, but they do have plenty of wrong ones. You need to be prepared.

Interview Like a Boss

Handling tough questions has become a core skill for higher education leaders. Poorly articulated, clumsily worded, or misguided responses to charged questions can end careers and generate bad publicity. Institutions have dealt with a range of recent high-profile controversies, including anti-racism protests at the University of Missouri, allegations of mishandled sexual assault complaints at Baylor University, as well as free-speech incidents at Middlebury College and the University of California, Berkeley. No campus is immune. And leaders who offer awkward or ill-informed opinions can raise tensions rather than defuse them.

In a politically strained era, search committees are increasingly considering candidates' ability to manage tough topics. When committees recruit top administrators—from presidents to leaders in advancement, athletics, or admissions—they want candidates who can be a trusted voice of the institution. Have you done your homework? Do you sound knowledgeable? Do your responses balance conviction with an openness to other opinions? Search committee members want to know what you think, but they are also scrutinizing how you respond to the tough questions.

In several recent executive interviews, I've watched candidates deal with the following questions:

  • "How can we successfully recruit and enroll students from predominantly Muslim countries?"
  • "Should we invite and fund outside speakers whose views are deemed offensive by significant segments of the student body?"
  • "How important is international expansion to our future success?"
  • "What are your thoughts on Title IX?"
  • "Talk about your role in the efforts your university has made to increase campus diversity."

What does a successful answer sound like? Take the diversity question. Leadership candidates should demonstrate facility with data while conveying conviction and honesty. Own the issue. Talk about what you have done. Admit to the failures, and speak with nuanced language.

Ready Your Responses

It doesn't get easier once you're in the job. Tough questions can arise at any time—during donor visits or at alumni gatherings. When you're asked about controversial topics, your answers should align with the institution's official positions. Every institution has a mission statement and core values that form its identity: Answers to difficult questions should reinforce these values. You can respond honestly and diplomatically without selling your soul. Use these three strategies:

  • Be prepared. Can you state the institution's position on a variety of issues? What, for example, is written in the institution's diversity and inclusion statement? Has the president commented publicly about the school's role as a sanctuary campus?
  • Admit what you don't know. Fundraisers can be forgiven for not knowing the nuances of Title IX or getting thrown by a donor's unexpected question ("He's not going to block the invitation to Ann Coulter, is he?"). Plead ignorance, but pledge to find out.
  • Ask questions. Engagement through exploration is key. When faced with a tough donor question, turn the tables and ask: "What's your understanding of the issue? How would you advise us?" 

Handling a controversial, complicated question is less about knowing the right answer than anticipating that it's coming.


About the Author

Sheila Murphy is an executive search consultant in Witt/Kieffer's Education practice.