Finding (and Keeping) the Right College President

The current practice of identifying, nurturing and providing for succession planning for college and university presidents has led to a crisis within higher education.
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In a The Huffington Post blog in July, we looked at the reasons behind the need for college and university presidents to lead in higher education and more broadly across American society.

The opportunity for leadership, however, begins with the selection of the right president. The choice can vary dramatically across institutions and even within a particular time and place in an institution's history. Why is it that finding and supporting a college president is so difficult today?

One respected leader, Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, has noted that it is the "increasingly external orientation of presidential duties that best explains why only 30 percent of all chief academic officers (and just 24 percent of them at independent colleges) still aspire to become college presidents."

While opinions vary, there are at least eight themes that run through recent literature on the subject. These themes are that respect for the office of the president has decreased dramatically, the nature of the job has changed, and the position has become more corporate with presidents assuming more the role of CEO than the head of a community of learners. Other concerns include the higher percentages of presidents chosen from non-traditional backgrounds, that many "traditional" recruits are unprepared for responsibilities beyond their normal role as chief academic officers, and that boards prevent leadership from taking strong positions that might encourage controversy no matter how needed the reform, thereby decreasing the prospect of change agents as emerging presidents. Finally, some argue that the tenure of presidents is no longer long enough for a leader to build credibility within the community and that the pool of candidates is shrinking, less robust and insufficient to attract entrepreneurial and creative candidates who are subsequently drawn into other fields.

The fact is that, while there are several good programs to introduce presidents and even occasionally train them for some aspects of the job, this training is episodic, spotty and inconsistent at best. In discussions with senior administrators across the country who are considering their options as president, the question of how to move "from cradle through career" is a pressing one. They note that there are few approaches except fellows programs or management institutes to identify presidents. Some mentoring exists as presidents, board members, and fellow administrators pass along names anecdotally to executive search firms who often rely on a stable of candidates drawn from their virtual revolving Rolodex. More tellingly, candidates report that programs do not exist that would explain to them at the outset the fundamentals of the modern presidency, thereby allowing aspiring candidates at an early stage of their career to opt in or out. These individuals lament the lack of mentors to help them determine their strengths or weaknesses, how they might address them, and how best to craft an executive portfolio to make them attractive candidates. To use a baseball analogy, there is no higher education-sanctioned farm team to learn the trade comprehensively before being called up to the majors.

And then you get the job. What do you do now? Boards often send first-time presidents to some variation of boot camp, like the Harvard New Presidents Seminar. These experiences open eyes, encourage friendships among new presidents and introduce topics and coping strategies that require presidential attention. These are valuable first steps, but they do not provide an opportunity for ongoing mentorship, specialized training since every new president carries unique strengths and weaknesses into the job, and an established network upon which to draw as issues arise. Over the longer term, moreover, both boards and presidents expose themselves because most fail to see presidencies as a continuum in institutional history in which they must provide for succession planning from the moment a new president takes office.

The current practice of identifying, nurturing and providing for succession planning for college and university presidents has led to a crisis within higher education. What is most needed is a plan to educate prospects, identify leaders, prepare them, and support the institution when they leave or retire. The decentralized system of competing executive search firms and word-of-mouth identification of presidential prospects hardly nurtures a sustainable pool of the best and brightest candidates. Boards who fail to recognize that finding, nurturing and retaining a president is as important as their role in institutional oversight or as financial stewards will predictably fail in their search for a promising new president.

American higher education cannot afford the luxury of badly trained, well-intentioned but clueless leaders. Life cycle training for presidents is critical to the case that American higher education must make for itself on the global stage. For new presidents, where you came from and what you know may be less important than in how you are trained to put it all together throughout your tenure.

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