Caught in Transit

Saundra Tracy and Jeff Abernathy, the departing and incoming presidents of Alma College, reflect on transitions.


July 14, 2010

Editor’s note: Alma College President Saundra Tracy concluded her nine-year presidency with her retirement in June 2010. Following a national search, Jeff Abernathy, vice president and dean at Augustana College, was selected by Alma’s Board of Trustees in February to succeed Tracy. The February appointment resulted in a four-month lead-in for the presidential transition.


Where does one learn how to navigate the dynamics of a presidential transition? Every college president has dedicated significant time to how to carry out the functions of a president. Each presidential candidate has spent untold hours determining how best to present oneself as a candidate. But few have planned how to act in this undefined space in which one is in the process of either bringing to an end or beginning a college presidency.

For the two of us -- Saundra Tracy, the 12th president of Alma College, and Jeff Abernathy, the 13th -- these were, to put it mildly, strange times.

It’s not as though we could turn to the history of the college for insight. A Phi Beta Kappa liberal arts college located in the middle of Michigan’s lower peninsula, Alma College has been blessed with few presidential transitions. In 125 years, Alma has had only 12 such transitions, all but three of them prior to 1960. This four-month presidential transition felt some days like a dance -- carefully coordinating our steps while all eyes were on the dance floor.

We were engaged in a very public undertaking, but were fortunate to have personally worked together previously. Alma and Augustana are part of MALLA (Midwestern Alliance for Learning in the Liberal Arts), a consortium of liberal arts colleges that formed four years ago. That work gave us the opportunity to get to know one another prior to this new relationship, and helped make the steps of this dance less daunting. Here are our reflections and lessons for future presidents.


Tracy: From the sitting president’s viewpoint, not all transitions came under such circumstances as Alma enjoyed: enrollment is growing, and the college had just completed the largest comprehensive campaign in its history. The endowment is nearing $100 million for the second time. The campus community is working very well together, there is a strong and effective Board of Trustees in place, and the national search for a new president attracted a rich pool of strong candidates.

While reflecting on the many successes of the past nine years, it was important to continue to lead, for the campus was watching carefully lest it be a “leaderless” spring. The campus needed to be assured I was in charge. Off-handed comments from faculty and staff like “but you are still our president” were reminders of the insecurities this period generated. So I continued the routine rhythm of the college year -- the annual state of the college address and the presidential presence at the myriad of end-of-year events.

Abernathy: From the incoming perspective, the transition was of course layered, from one job that still has its demands to another -- the latter a new role altogether. The obligation to leave one’s former institution in good stead weighed on the incoming president -- there were budgets to be developed and faculty reviews, after all -- and the work of the transition took up more time than one imagined, even if most of it was in reflection. The transition thus became an opportunity to bring to balance the work of many years while preparing for new assignments.

This dual life was no doubt excellent preparation for the communication skills that will be essential to the role of college president. For example, the budget that I have authority over in the coming year was not the one that I was developing. Thus I worked closely with the interim dean at Augustana about her priorities for the academic budget even as I was seeking to learn the intricacies of the budgeting process at Alma.

Excited as I was to be joining Alma, I was also keenly aware that the transition, in the end, must, to some extent, be directed by the sitting president. A college has one president at a time, and I learned much in these months from Dr. Tracy. Those months provided an opportunity to honor the success she'd had in nine years as Alma’s president and to learn from her what I could before beginning my work.

Tracy: Likewise, I publicly and frequently gave my blessing to Dr. Abernathy’s coming presidency and the changes that inevitably lie ahead. However successful my own presidency, my successor will bring his own vision, style and expertise.

Letting go was probably the most important -- and probably most difficult -- presidential task I accomplished personally and professionally in the weeks leading to Dr. Abernathy’s presidency. It was not a time for “what ifs” or regrets; the presidential legacy already had been shaped. It was a time to personally look forward to life beyond the presidency. It was time to defer many tasks I savored to a successor soon to assume my role. It was time to support and prepare the senior leadership team for the changes ahead.

Such occasions came at the end of a long and unusual silence in which I had not been privy to the most important business of the institution I was still running: the naming of a successor. Yet the period of transition was exhilarating and filled with celebration of successes -- a time to savor the presidency more than any time since my inauguration. This time was also mixed with a sense of separation and even loss.


We also learned there will be challenges no matter how carefully planned the transition. Early in the transition we had to build a relationship that dared to respectfully challenge each other. The metaphor of a dance is an apt description of the early steps we negotiated, each calculating when to defer and when to assert our own leadership.

For Dr. Abernathy, the desire to participate in his new institution’s major end-of-year celebration of a successful capital campaign -- a gala event in which most of the college’s major donors and friends were present, their first opportunity to meet the new president -- was derailed when bad weather grounded him at the airport.

So what did we, incoming and outgoing presidents, learn as we negotiated this presidential transition? Perhaps our greatest insight was that the symbolic transfer of leadership is as important as the handing off of the actual job. All eyes were trained on the two of us as we orchestrated the transition period together.

  • Visibly showing appreciation and acceptance of each other. For us, it was not difficult because it was genuine, but we believed it provided an essential assurance to all that the college wouldn’t miss a beat. At the same time, it was clear to all that he is not a clone of her but was selected for the style and initiatives he will bring to this next chapter in the college’s history.
  • Phasing the leadership hand-off. Although she maintained clear control of the campus through the transition, he gradually asserted his upcoming leadership role. We communicated frequently and met monthly. In the early stages, most of our campus presence was together. As the transition moved forward, she introduced him to donors, friends and professional groups; he began to build a relationship with the individual vice presidents. She still represented the institution at its major events, but he attended as observer poised to become leader.
  • Partnering the board throughout the transition. Alma’s board was directly involved in all aspects of this time. One of the board’s goals for the year was to celebrate her presidency and create a good start to his new presidency. The board did this admirably, such that the transition support did not end when she left campus in early summer but will continue through his first year. The board's messages have reinforced our own, offering essential affirmation of the college today and optimism about its future.

Only time will tell if we have gotten it right. But we know that working together to craft a presidential transition has made both letting go and waiting in the wings that much easier. We believe the challenges of such a leadership transition have been lessened because of the brief but exciting time of collaboration in this special role -- the presidency -- which few have the privilege to share.


Saundra Tracy was president of Alma College from July 2001 through June 15 of this year, when Jeff Abernathy, former provost at Augustana College, in Illinois, succeeded her.


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