Last fall, word leaked out among alumnae and staff members at the College of New Rochelle that the institution's Board of Trustees was on the verge of hiring a new president.
This news took them by surprise. Stephen J. Sweeny, the current president of the Roman Catholic women's college in the suburbs north of New York City, was almost two years away from the date he'd set for retirement, in June 2011. And virtually no one on the New Rochelle campus -- not faculty or staff leaders, nor the college's loyal alumnae -- had a clue that such a search was underway, let alone had a role in the search, as national faculty groups and the leading national association of trustees strongly recommend.
Some (but not all) of those who were upset by the process used to choose the new president were also troubled by its outcome: the selection, announced in September, of the university's vice president for financial affairs, Judith Huntington. While widely liked and respected after eight years as a top administrator at New Rochelle, Huntington's highest degree is a bachelor's in accounting from nearby Pace University, which would put her among the 1.5 percent of four-year college presidents with no advanced degree, according to American Council on Education data on college presidents.
New Rochelle's board leaders say they were unaware that it is standard operating procedure for colleges to involve faculty and staff members and other campus constituents in searches for new presidents, and say that the process they used this time was similar to previous searches at the college. In the face of a critical letter from New Rochelle's faculty leaders, they have vowed to reconsider the approach in the future.
But board members strongly defend both the decision not to conduct a national search -- colleges and universities are often criticized for doing a poor job of developing internal successors to top managers -- and the selection of Huntington.
Their reasoning for the latter, though, could cause its own reverberations on the campus: The board chairman suggests that the college's survival was at stake, and that hiring a scholarly leader could have been fatal.
"Although financial needs and educational needs are both part of the picture, in the College of New Rochelle's case, financial needs are absolutely paramount at this time," said Michael N. Ambler, a former lawyer at Texaco and a member of the college's board since 1993. "We felt that the crying need for the college over the long haul was financial in order to keep it alive, and without that, we were nowhere."
A College in Transition
The College of New Rochelle is, like many of its peers, in a period of change. As an Ursuline women's college in an urban area, it has increasingly seen its students come from minority and low income backgrounds; it also serves large numbers of adults. In addition to its main campus in working class New Rochelle, the college has set up shop in some of New York City's most diverse and educationally underserved areas, including the South Bronx and Harlem.
The college has had much consistency in its leadership. Sweeny has been its president since 1997; he had been provost for 16 years before that under his predecessor, Sister Dorothy Ann Kelly, who headed the institution for 25 years. Sweeny was elevated to replace Sister Dorothy without a search, an experience that worked out well for the college, trustees and others say.
So when Sweeny told board leaders in mid-2008 that he planned to retire in 2011, says Ambler, the board chairman, he appointed the members of the trustees' executive committee to conduct the search for a replacement.
The members of the search committee began their process, he says, by refining a list of "qualities and qualifications" for a president that board members had begun developing in 2007. It included a series of professional qualifications ("Experience in college administration at a high level," "Familiarity with and experience with Ursuline education"), personal qualities ("appreciation of diversity," "sensitivity to the educational needs of the adult population") and, perhaps most importantly, requirements for leadership style, which focused first and foremost on commitment to New Rochelle's "non-negotiable values": the liberal arts, the education of women, the college's Ursuline tradition, access to lifelong learning, and "providing an excellent education in a caring environment."
Ambler admits that many of the trustees, often from their own experiences in the business world, had a "bias" against external searches; "some of us had had unfortunate experiences hiring an unknown quantity," he says.
As a result, the executive committee opted to begin by scanning the New Rochelle campus "to see whether there was someone well known to us who fit the criteria" the board had laid out. There was one, he says: Judith Huntington, a former audit manager at KPMG who had been the college's vice president for financial affairs since 2001. "She is very well liked, very smart, personable, and she knows the institution inside out," Ambler says. "She had all of those things we wanted, except for one thing: She did not have a Ph.D."
The search panel members "made some modest inquiries outside" the college, Ambler says, looking at presidents of colleges "that are more or less in our league, ... but our heart really wasn’t in it. "We had really settled on Judy as the person that we wanted."
Even as they coalesced around Huntington as the favored choice, Ambler says, "we did discuss whether we should at the same time have a national search. But we decided that, not only would it be costly and time consuming, but it also wouldn’t be a very honest process, that we would have to tell the search firm that we had someone we really liked and that fit our pistol."
In late August 2009, word that the board was close to hiring a new president spilled out to some alumnae, through what Ambler characterizes as a "leak" by a former member of the board whom he would not name. "Our cover was blown," Ambler says.
Soon after, a group of alums wrote an impassioned letter (which was soon followed by others) urging the board to "recognize that more than anything else, at this critical time, the College needs a rigorous, open, inclusive and transparent process to identify the best person to lead CNR."
Only a process "conducted with the guidance of a respected firm and led by dedicated trustees," the letter said, "can assure that trustees hear from the broad College community -- alumnae, students and faculty, and provides the only way to discover and define the work of a new president and the skills and experiences necessary to meet the demands of that work."
That is not what is happening, the letter said. "From what we know of the work done by the Executive Committee so far, the Board is unfortunately being led to endorse a particular outcome rather than to undertake a comprehensive search process to select the best president." With the current president's departure two years away, "[t]here is time for a deliberate and inclusive effort."
That letter, which was signed by more than two dozen people and soon followed by other letters, prompted the trustees to expedite their selection process, rather than slow it down as the letter writers hoped. (It also spurred Ambler to write a letter of his own, weeks later, that complained that a "small group of uninformed alumnae 'activists' " had "tried to discredit the Board and the College" with "ad hominem argumentation" about the search process and the new president -- a letter that rubbed many at New Rochelle the wrong way.) In late August, the trustees quickly set up several appointments with deans, department chairs and, ultimately, representatives of four faculty and staff groups, who were called to a meeting with President Sweeny without knowing its purpose.
“The reason that we had these meetings was to acquaint them with what was going on, and give them an opportunity to express reservations,” says Ambler.
“We really wanted to hear their reactions, but we weren’t going for approval – we wanted their reactions to it,” adds Anne Vitale, another trustee who conducted the meetings with faculty and other leaders. “There was a very positive reaction,” Vitale says. “All of them said they had profound respect for the candidate, that her knowledge and integrity was above board. And there was no criticism of the process at that meeting, although there was one call from faculty later asking what the inclusion of faculty would be going forward.”
Teri Kwal Gamble, a communications professor who heads New Rochelle’s Council of Faculty, concurs that she and the other employees at that meeting did not express concerns about the process then, mostly because they had been taken by surprise. We “might have been able to express our concerns about the process in a more timely fashion” if they had known before that meeting that the trustees had been searching for a new president.
“The process is not a process that the faculty endorses, because we were not involved in the search,” says Gamble, who followed up in the days that followed with a phone call to Vitale and then a letter to the trustees expressing “the faculty’s concern that we will be involved going forward. We think we should be involved.”
So do virtually all national groups that pay attention to such issues. It’s not at all surprising that the American Association of University Professors’ guidelines call for a significant role for faculty members in the search for a new president, saying that “[t]he selection of a chief administrative officer should follow upon a cooperative search by the governing board and the faculty, taking into consideration the opinions of others who are appropriately interested.”
While many a presidential search would fall short of that standard, most hew more closely to the approach laid out by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges in its “Statement on Board Accountability,” which says that a board-appointed search committee “should reflect the diversity of the institution’s various constituencies, through direct membership or advisory roles.” Another AGB document, The Leadership Imperative, says more directly that a presidential search committee “should consist of trustees, faculty members, and other stakeholders.”
That 2006 document also acknowledged the possibility that governing boards may, on occasion, decide not to undertake a national search for a president, a point of view that has gained some currency in recent years as some higher education management experts argue that colleges should be more open to the prospect of developing and hiring internal candidates.
But even when boards opt to forgo open, national searches and to hire internally, they must use a process that is collaborative and transparent, advocates for such an approach say. “Whether the president chosen is from inside or outside the institution, the validity of the process used to select the president is enormously important,” AGB said in "The Leadership Imperative." “A decision to forgo a national search and appoint an internal president must be reached in a way that gains broad affirmation within the academic community.”
It added: “The institutional community must perceive that the presidential search and selection process has rigorously defined the challenges of the institution and resolutely sought the expressed qualities of leadership.”
Ambler, the New Rochelle board chairman, says that he and other trustees were not aware of the consensus view about involving campus constituents in presidential searches. The board, he says, “relied to some extent” on one member of the executive committee, the Rev. Leo O’Donovan, the former president of Georgetown University, “to vet our procedures and reassure us that we were doing things that are mainstream and correct. He thoroughly approved of everything we did.” Father O'Donovan could not be reached for comment.
It is also unusual for a college as established as New Rochelle not to have, or at least to publish, clear guidelines about its procedures for choosing a new president, says Milton Greenberg, a former provost at American University who wrote a 2002 article for Trusteeship, the AGB magazine, on presidential searches. "I think it’s extraordinary that a school that’s this old doesn't have any rules. Every school has some kind of guidelines."
New Rochelle's Future
Troubled as faculty and staff leaders may have been by the process New Rochelle's trustees used to choose the new president, they are generally supportive of the selection of Huntington.
"She is a very collegial individual, and I believe she has great respect for the academic mission of the college," says Gamble, the Council of Faculty chairwoman. "While I understand the concerns of others and respect and share the concern for the procedures that were followed in this case, we're all best served at this juncture to be behind her."
But even Gamble was taken aback at Ambler's suggestion -- in explaining the board's reasoning for coalescing around Huntington despite her lack of an advanced degree -- that New Rochelle could have put its future at risk by choosing an academic leader. With "virtually no endowment" (about $20 million, for an enrollment of 6,000 students), "the financial requirements of CNR are very difficulty to meet," Ambler says. "We have balanced our books, based on regular revenue and rather small gifts from alumnae, and Judy has been responsible for a great deal of our ability to do that."
Huntington, he says, has nearly a year to more fully "familiarize herself with the educational side, to the extent she didn't already have it." Hiring a president with stronger academic credentials and lesser financial bona fides could have put the college's future at risk, he suggests. "If we had an educator as president, I'm not sure the college would survive."
"Really? He said that?" Gamble said when told of Ambler's comments. She paused for a moment and said: "I don't think anything will be served now to create dissension. This is a challenging time."