Surviving a Presidential Transition

By the time a new president greets the faculty or grants the first media interview, he or she has probably experienced professional and personal upheaval. Scott D. Miller offers advice for ways to make it all go smoother.

February 10, 2016
 

For most campuses, the arrival of a new president -- especially one hired to be a change agent -- ushers in a period of significant adjustment. Staff may be reassigned or released, strategic priorities are adjusted, initiatives announced, new funding campaigns launched, presidential dwellings renovated. For the new president and his or her spouse, the changes are no less dramatic, although they are often unseen by the wider campus community.

By the time the incoming president greets the faculty or grants a first media interview, he or she has probably experienced professional and personal upheaval. I know because I’ve had four presidential transitions of my own -- none easier than the preceding one.

Over the past quarter century, I have been honored to serve four liberal arts institutions as a college president. My professional preparation as a newspaper reporter, and early campus administrative experience in external relations and fund-raising, grounded me well in communications and interpersonal relations. Early on, I had a strong understanding of how to determine what people wanted and needed, what motivated them and what it took to work with them collaboratively.

But nothing prepared me -- and, I would suggest, prepares most anyone else -- for actually being a president except surviving to tell about it. Accordingly, the transition to each new assignment can be just as daunting as the previous one, each with distinct challenges.

But there are ways to make it all go smoother. Here, from my own experience, are a few suggestions how:

  1. If at all possible, don’t take a midyear appointment. When my wife, Annie, and I transitioned at midpoint of one academic year, it was in the dead of winter (and between Christmas and New Year’s Day). Work crews were busily trying to refurbish the beautiful, historic president’s home -- a process still incomplete when we moved in during a late-December snowstorm. It was not an experience that I would recommend. As an incoming president, you should establish a firm timeline for arrival (the ideal transition time is four to six months), make sure all packing and moving expenses are reimbursed by your new institution, and secure a transitional budget until you are settled in. That should include interim travel to and from the campus by you and your spouse, and incidental expenses incurred in becoming established at the institution.
  2. Get it all in writing. Tie down in writing all contractual obligations, expectations and administrative details pertaining to your presidency -- both at the institution you’re leaving and the one you will be reporting to. There should be no confusion on anyone’s part about the transitional period, especially when it comes to your resignation from the previous college and your appointment at the next one.
  3. Establish a transition team. Key transitional staff can acquaint you with the institution’s organizational structure and traditions, outline community connections to make, and help you identify operational priorities. Ask your board to commission an institutional review: an independent, in-depth evaluation of where the college is, where it needs to go and what strategic planning and resources will be required to achieve goals. Data and perspectives from the review will help direct and sustain your activities for the first six to eight months.
  4. Learn all you can -- before you arrive -- about key areas. Those could include enrollment, campus technology and facilities, finance, academic policies and procedures, and cherished traditions. Because everyone will watch everything you do in the early weeks, you want to hit the ground running with a working plan and as much practical knowledge about the institution as you can gather. You’ll need to know what strategic planning, if any, is in place; how the enrollment and advancement operations function; who the faculty opinion leaders are; and, if possible, what perceptions alumni, friends, community leaders, parents and others hold of the college. Although some surprises are inevitable, effective presidents don’t encounter many of them upon arrival.
  5. During the transitional period, make fact-finding and meet-and-greet visits to the campus. But don’t step on your predecessor if she or he is still on campus. Ask questions, gather insights but defer making final judgments, major changes or key appointments until you’re in charge. You should understand completely the status and future plans of your predecessor, especially if he or she is a longtime fixture on the campus, has been forced to resign or will remain at the institution in some lesser official capacity. (I would strongly discourage the latter through your board chair.)
  6. Beware of prior executive decisions made before your arrival. Taking the reins at one institution, I learned that my predecessor had made significant financial commitments, granting substantial raises and multiyear contracts to close friends and establishing two new program centers -- all on his last day in office. Worse, this president didn’t seem in any hurry to leave. Although it’s impossible to cover every contingency from afar, asking abundant questions of board and alumni leaders, senior staff, and others before you report can help prevent the unexpected.
  7. Recognize that, often, you and your institution have nowhere to go but up. At age 38, I was a seasoned presidential veteran, but my next assignment did not begin well. At the new institution, the incumbent president and his administrative staff had all vacated their positions, and the college had only one month of cash in the bank, a pitifully small $3 million endowment, a maxed-out line of credit and no long-term debt capacity. On top of that, with a moving van, Annie and two young daughters on their way to the campus, I received a call from the board chair that we would not be allowed to move into the president’s residence until the incumbent’s retirement agreement had been completed. That took another month, compelling my wife, two daughters, two dogs and me to camp out in a one-room apartment. Yes, you have to believe at times that even the most grim circumstances will improve. Fortunately for my family and the college, they did.
  8. Set and keep priorities on the home front. Presidential spouses frequently surrender careers, friendships and established connections to join you at the new campus. Respect this loyalty to your career and the partnership you share. Keep your spouse’s needs and interests in the forefront of your thinking. The college presidency today is a 24-7 commitment, and no one can accompany you on the journey as faithfully as your life partner. Set aside private time to relax, recharge and reflect with your spouse and family. Mine enforces her wish that during outings and vacations, I stay off social media and silence mobile phones as much as possible.

Finally, remember that although college presidents seek control, they don’t always have it. Expect the unexpected. Recognize that institutions tend to guard their secrets, and while you are expected to be a transparent leader, your followers may not return the courtesy. You are leading, and often expected to change, a campus culture not of your design. That’s why you’re paid well, often worked to exhaustion and assigned fame that is fleeting and a footnote in history that can be revised after you’re gone.

Yet while the hours are long, the rewards can be great. There’s no job like the college presidency, and believe me, that’s a good thing.

Bio

Scott D. Miller is president of Virginia Wesleyan College. Previously, he served as president at Bethany College in West Virginia, Wesley College in Delaware and Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee. Scott and Annie recently spoke on presidential transition at the Council of Independent Colleges Presidents Institute.

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