Going Searchless at AGB

The college trustees' group hired an internal candidate as its new chief. Should colleges follow its lead?
April 6, 2005

When colleges need to replace their presidents, their governing boards almost without fail construct elaborate processes involving outside consultants, committees of trustees, administrators and professors, and, depending on the type of institution, public interviews. What the institutions virtually never do is what the primary national group of trustees has just done: hire an internal candidate without a search.

The Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities quietly announced in an article in its bimonthly magazine that its president, Richard T. (Tom) Ingram, would retire at year's end after 14 years in charge of the organization, and that the group's executive vice president, Richard D. Legon, would replace him. Legon has been at AGB for more than 20 years, and has been Ingram's top deputy since 1993.

The article in Trusteeship didn't come out and say directly that AGB had dispensed with a search; the only oblique mention is a quotation from the chairman of AGB's board that "succession planning works," a reference to the practice, common in the corporate world, of identifying the next generation of leader or leaders within an organization. But officials of several other higher education associations said that AGB's decision had been much discussed in the world of Washington higher education, given that few if any of AGB's member institutions have ever or would ever go that route.

AGB officials acknowledged that the selection was unusual, both for the association and within the context of higher education. "This is the first time that the board in its judgment looked at the inside candidate and decided a search was not necessary," says Ingram, who will retire December 31. He said AGB's board members made the decision after a "very thoughtful" discussion lasting several hours at a special meeting in January.

"There's nothing crazy going on here," Ingram says. "A lot of boards pay lip service" to the idea that chief executives should groom possible successors, but the AGB board concluded that it had such a strong internal candidate that there was "no need to waste internal resources and time" on a national search, he adds.

"That doesn't make it wrong, and it doesn't make it suspect," Ingram says. "It's simply an example of a board that did its job."

Officials at other college associations and experts on college and nonprofit governance either said that they did not know enough about AGB's decision or were reluctant to comment (publicly, at least) on the affairs of another higher education group. But several described AGB's process as highly unusual, saying they could not recall either higher education associations or colleges hiring new chief executives without some sort of external search.

However, Deborah S. Hechinger, president and CEO of BoardSource, which educates and advises trustees of nonprofit groups, says that "succession management" is not nearly as unheard of in other nonprofit sectors as it is in higher education. "Given the cost of doing a search, if an organization has the foresight to do succession planning, and the board feels the individual is the best CEO they can find, there's nothing wrong with doing that," she says. "There's no one right answer for how to do it."

Jean A. Dowdall, a vice president at the search firm Witt Kieffer, agrees that segments of the nonprofit world have embraced "succession planning," though more to make sure they have talented and capable internal candidates lined up than to make the actual selections. She speculates that AGB may have been "signaling to its membership" that they should consider the approach. "There's real value in showing institutions around the country there's another way of doing things," she says.

Even commenters who think AGB's approach to hiring a chief executive may have been perfectly appropriate for an association of trustees say "succession planning" cannot work in the highly consultative environment of higher education.

Theodore J. Marchese, the former head of the American Association for Higher Education who now helps colleges find presidents through the Academic Search Consultation Service, says he has no doubt that certain types of organizations can choose a good leader without a search. "Without people to compare your internal candidate to, you can't necessarily know that you're getting the best person," he says, "but you can know it's the right person without making a decision on whether it's the 'best.' "

But while trustees in higher education would be wise to embrace some forms of "succession planning" -- identifying good potential internal candidates, ensuring that the institutions' top officials agree on the direction it should head in -- colleges cannot and should not go search-less, Marchese says.

"On a campus, a president is a symbolic leader for many different constituencies" -- including students, professors, staff and alumni -- "and it has become a tradition that presidents will be vetted by those groups prior to appointment. And there's good reason for it, because that process not only produces a 'winner,' but it also helps the new person in the process of founding a successful presidency."

Faculty leaders couldn't agree more. "In the academic environment, we operate from the principle that a president is somebody who has the confidence of all the major constituencies of the campus, including, from our perspective, the faculty," says B. Robert Kreiser, associate secretary of the American Association of University Professors, who specializes in governance. "So we would view skeptically any process at a college or university whereby someone who has been serving as provost or vice president automatically is moved to the next position by the trustees. There shouldn't be wired searches with foreordained outcomes."

For its part, Ingram says AGB was not trying to send any signals to colleges by choosing its own new leader without an outside search. But he says that colleges would do well to take a lead from the corporate sector in adopting some elements of succession planning, and that internal candidates too often don't get a fair shake when colleges search for presidents.

"Faculties often would rather take a chance on someone they know a lot less about than to go with someone who has upset some constituency or other," Ingram says, adding: "A lot of boards defer to faculty maybe more than they should."

When a board has a strong internal candidate, Ingram adds, "it's disingenuous to try to go through the motions of a national search and try to attract candidates when there is a strong sentiment for someone from inside. Sometimes what looks like an open search really isn't."


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