An Insider’s Guide to Presidential Search

Katherine Haley describes 10 things that boards and search committees need to know to run a successful presidential search.

January 16, 2020
( /vladimir obradovik)

In the life of a higher education institution, a presidential search does not come along that often. The average tenure of a college or university president is currently six to seven years -- and some campus leaders serve much longer. That means that few people at the institution or on the board will have experience or expertise in executing a presidential search.

Yet a successful search and leadership transition is vital to maintaining the momentum and success of the institution. What’s more, the search will be conducted, for the most part, in a very public arena where the reputation of the college or university will be on the line. So, when faced with this monumental, high-stakes project, what do trustees and the administration need to know?

If handled with purposeful planning and strategic vision, a presidential search can galvanize the institution, lift up its values, enhance visibility and renew a shared sense of purpose and vision for the future. In other words, a presidential search is not just a search but also a pivotal moment in the institution’s evolution.

Knowing that, it’s important to play the long game and to understand that the true task at hand is not completed when the new appointment is announced, but rather when the presidency is successfully launched via a thoughtful, comprehensive transition process. If the search is designed and carried out with that long-term outcome in mind, it will engender trust and support throughout the institution for the new leader.

So, to make the most of the tremendous potential of such a transformational process and avoid the common pitfalls, here are some key topics that board and search committee members should consider when planning a presidential search in academe.

No. 1: Process. For some people on the campus, how the search is run is almost as important as who is chosen. A presidential search is a crash course in the grand tradition of shared governance and its golden idol: process. As a result, people in the campus community will parse every decision and statement about the search as if issued from an oracle. They will watch closely to see that the search process observes shared governance precepts, as it should.

Note here that “process” is equated to some extent with broad consultation, providing opportunities for all to be heard. If you adopt a command-and-control approach, you will pay a price. Transparency is the coin of the realm. Transparency -- purposeful, authentic transparency -- is your friend and will buy you a great deal of trust and goodwill. You should be as forthcoming as you can about the process while keeping your commitment to the candidates for confidentiality.

No. 2: Community consultation. A presidential search will not only arouse an astonishing amount of interest on the campus but also a lot of angst. Colleges are mission-driven communities with many dedicated members -- and they are facing change. Change makes for insecurity, especially in academe. Almost everyone will feel that they have a personal stake in the process and outcome -- and the right to make a contribution to them.

Trustees find this particularly surprising. I once suggested to the chair of a presidential search committee at the beginning of a search that it would be good to hold several open forums for campus constituents to air their views. This brilliant, successful tech entrepreneur looked at me quizzically and replied, “Wow, really? That would be so time-consuming, and besides, it’s the Board of Trustees who appoints the president.” Her response was completely understandable, given her background and work experience. But it is a wise board that welcomes community input at the beginning of the search process and goes out of its way to affirm the culture of the institution.

No. 3: Commitment of the search chair and committee. A corollary to No. 2 is how much time the search committee chair and members will need to spend to guide the search and field the constant barrage of input. At the successful completion of a presidential search a few years ago, the chair reflected with rue and awe on the amount of time she spent managing just the communications element of the search. Shared governance was particularly strong at the institution, so throughout the process, she was bombarded with emails, phone calls and personal overtures -- including advice, critiques and even demands from faculty, staff, students, alumni and fellow trustees who felt entitled to present their opinions on how the search was being run. Throughout the process, patience is key.

No. 4: The board as final decision maker. You will need to remind members of the campus community that the task of finding and appointing the president is one of the core responsibilities of the Board of Trustees. Often that concept is just not on their radar screen -- or even somewhat at odds with their sense of shared governance. But it’s a fact and thus crucial to make this clear at the beginning of the search. You should also make it very clear that the board has listened and taken good counsel from the people throughout the campus and the search committee.

No. 5: Shaping the search committee. Almost everyone will want to be on the search committee, because they see it as influencing the future of the institution. The goal is to have a workable search committee populated with people who best represent the institution’s various key constituencies. But you can pretty much count on the fact that campus constituencies will question the whole concept of representative governance, with many believing passionately that no one person can represent them or their particular constituency authentically. Faculty, staff and students will inevitably pressure for more representation.

They’ll also question what kind of faculty members or administrators are serving as their representative. Is it fair to have faculty representation from the social sciences but not for the humanities? Or should seniority be a preferred category? Or equal representation of both junior untenured and senior tenured faculty?

These pressures have often led to presidential search committees with memberships northward of 20 people, which poses obvious logistical and decision-making challenges. One key point: it is only right (and strategic) that, given their key responsibility to appoint the president, trustees should outnumber any other constituency.

No. 6: The leadership profile. This is a long, comprehensive document that describes the university (“who we are”) and what its priorities are for a new president (“what we want”). It’s a complicated and political job to create such a profile, and it will most likely be challenging for the search committee. In perhaps 50 percent of the cases, someone on the committee will find the official mission statement -- a legal document approved by the trustees -- somehow inadequate or not reflective of their view of the institution. The whole definition of “who we are” as a university can become an existential, zero-sum battle over institutional priorities and values. The debate will almost inevitably be tinged by territoriality -- for example, different people will argue for emphasis on a particular program or feature, ignoring other important characteristics of the university.

Recognize that the leadership profile is also a marketing document that your institution will send to several thousand higher education leaders and that will appear on your website. Be sure to balance frankness and transparency about the institution with appropriate and graceful touting of its strengths and distinctions. Be certain, as well, to have enough discussion with the search committee at the beginning of the search to come to explicit consensus on what you want in the next president -- so you don’t get to the point of narrowing the candidate pool and then find you disagree on the criteria after all. In addition, be aware of any legal implications as to what the document says is required if you hire someone who does not have that credential or experience.

No. 7: Dealing with internal candidates. Allowing internal candidates to apply will have strong immediate and long-term repercussions; the process can be political and delicate. Internal candidates should be counseled not to stage a campaign on campus to support their candidacy. Otherwise, they should be treated, to the extent possible, like all the other candidates -- neutrally and confidentially.

What happens if the internal candidate is not chosen? It is important to communicate that to the candidate in a personal and respectful way. Hopefully, the person will have enough self-confidence and integrity to actively support the new president. If not, they should step down.

No. 8: Recruiting and evaluating the candidates. Vetting and recruiting candidates are two very different activities. The search committee must understand that when interviewing candidates, its role is a dual one: evaluating them, yes, but also wooing them. Indeed, engaging with the semi-final and finalist candidates is like courting. Meanwhile, for their part, the candidates are attempting to find out what they need to know while, at the same time, demonstrating their appreciation for the university and their ability to enthusiastically embody the mission and achieve progress.

No. 9: The designated support person. A successful presidential search process involves myriad logistical arrangements that you should assign to a highly trusted administrator or assistant. This person should have experience setting up and scheduling large meetings, editing documents and the like.

No. 10: Confidentiality for candidates. This is an absolute must. Your institution will be known for how it conducts the search and treats all of the candidates. It’s a small universe; you want your university to be recognized for how professionally and respectfully it deals with candidates throughout the process.

Breaches by the search committee should be cause for voting off the island. For instance, it often surprises search committee members to learn that they cannot pick up the phone or send out an email or text to a colleague at a candidate’s institution “to get the real story.” You can lose good candidates by breaching their confidentiality -- and do mortal harm to their current position if it’s revealed they are a candidate elsewhere. Be emphatic about confidentiality from the beginning, and it will help to guarantee the success of the search.

Ultimately, a presidential search is all about change and potential. It can be a daunting, high-risk and high-reward project. So it’s important to keep in front of you the opportunity not only to identify a new president but also to seek buy-in from all university constituencies. Again, the mantra is transparency about process, confidentiality for candidates.

A well-run presidential search can garner enormous goodwill and a sense of institutional identity, promise and pride, as well as a renewal of university values and aspirations. If successful, it will ensure institutional momentum and affirm the well-loved values of the college or university.

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Katherine Haley is the founder of Haley Associates, a higher education executive search firm, and the former president of Gettysburg College and Whittier College. She has conducted more than 47 presidential searches.


Katherine Haley

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