Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | Nova Southeastern University | Getty Images
After 13-plus years as president of Nova Southeastern University, George Hanbury is retiring in 2025—and his successor has already been hired and is waiting in the wings. The move marks a departure from higher education norms and hews more toward the practices of corporate America.
Nova Southeastern leaders say they are seeking to promote continuity and sustain the university’s mission and vision by placing trust in the capable hands of someone who knows the institution. Forgoing a search, they tapped Dr. Harry Moon, the chief operating officer, as the next president of the private institution in Florida. And while the nature of the hire is somewhat uncommon in higher ed, it mirrors Hanbury’s path to the presidency.
In a landscape where leadership searches are often fraught with scandals and failed presidencies are common, Nova Southeastern leaders hope to maintain the momentum of an institution they see as on the rise by hiring from within and elongating the onboarding process.
Nova Southeastern’s Succession Plan
When Hanbury retires, it will mark the end of a nearly three-decade run at the university. He got his start after a 30-year career as a city manager in Florida and Virginia, first hired as Nova Southeastern’s chief operating officer before rising to the presidency.
Hanbury replaced then president Ray Ferrero in 2010.
“The chairman of the board said he had been interviewing me for 12 years,” Hanbury told Inside Higher Ed.
Like Hanbury, Dr. Moon’s experience prior to joining Nova Southeastern was outside academe. Trained as a plastic surgeon, Dr. Moon held various executive posts with Cleveland Clinic Florida and had a private practice before joining Nova Southeastern as chief operating officer in 2018.
When he first joined NSU, Dr. Moon had no expectation of becoming president. But when Hanbury—who recently turned 80—decided to retire, the Board of Trustees looked to him.
“Toward the end of last year, the chairman of the board approached me. The board had begun to discuss succession planning; at that time those were just casual conversations,” Dr. Moon said. “Then the board sent information to me that they would want me to consider the presidency.”
As with Hanbury, the board had years to evaluate Dr. Moon in the role of chief operating officer. Given their familiarity with Dr. Moon and the belief that the college needed continuity rather than a change agent, trustees decided to forgo a search and tap him as the next president. He will start the job on Jan. 1, 2025, when Hanbury officially exits the role.
Given their similar backgrounds, the succession plan makes sense to both Hanbury and Dr. Moon. But in higher education, it’s rare for an outgoing president to directly onboard their immediate successor. Extending the process will allow for “as smooth a transition as possible,” Dr. Moon said.
It helps that the board is business-minded, Dr. Moon added; some members have had to create succession plans in their own companies, which made them familiar with such processes.
Nova Southeastern’s succession plan bears some resemblance to the one that took place last year at Purdue University, when Mitch Daniels announced he would step down at the end of 2022. On the very same day, the Board of Trustees appointed Mung Chiang, the dean of engineering and executive vice president for strategic initiatives at Purdue, as Daniels’s successor—without public input or an external search.
Colleen Brady, the chair of Purdue’s University Senate, told Inside Higher Ed at the time that the board was “empowered by statute and bylaw” to choose the next president by whatever means they saw fit. “In this case, it was decided that there were enough qualified internal candidates to fill the position without an external search,” she said. “Therefore, the board members have been informally gathering feedback and input on the candidates of interest, and announced their selection.”
Hanbury emphasized that hiring from the inside is a reliable way for an institution to remain consistent and focused on its mission.
“Higher ed is just beginning to realize that if you don’t operate your university as a business, you could be going out of business,” he said, noting recent struggles and closures at other colleges.
And in public higher education, he added, succession planning is often accompanied by thorny politics.
“In some of the state systems, you get political influence, and that can create upheaval and uncertainty among faculty, a lack of continuity, and you’re always looking for a change agent. And I don’t think that’s best for the university,” Hanbury said.
Fraught Presidential Search Processes
To his point, state institutions across the U.S. have undergone presidential searches complicated by secrecy, marked by a disregard for transparency and dominated by partisan politics—particularly in Florida.
Executive searches in the state have made steady headlines since at least late 2022, when former Republican senator Ben Sasse was named the sole finalist for the presidency of the University of Florida after a recent state law change giving applicants more anonymity.
The UF board hired Sasse unanimously, disregarding outcry from student protesters. Since then, political allies of Florida governor Ron DeSantis have been hired into other presidential jobs, including Richard Corcoran at New College of Florida and Fred Hawkins at South Florida State College—despite concerns about their qualifications and connections.
Other DeSantis allies have narrowly missed out on jobs.
In April Henry Mack, a former chancellor of the Florida Department of Education, lost out on the Florida Gulf Coast University presidency by one vote. Then he was selected as interim president of Broward College last month, only to back out when negotiations broke down.
Republican state lawmaker Randy Fine has told local media that the governor’s office recruited him to apply for the top job at Florida Atlantic University, promising him an easy path to the presidency. But he was not selected as a finalist and the search has been stalled since the summer, with the state alleging anomalies over a search committee straw poll to rank candidates—a move that Florida’s attorney general recently found violated state sunshine laws.
Elsewhere, boards have defied their own search rules to control presidential hiring processes. One example is the recent decision by the Louisiana Board of Supervisors to suspend a rule requiring the formation of a search committee in hiring both a new University of Louisiana system head and a new president of Louisiana Tech University.
Following a process that also lacked faculty participation, the board named system president Jim Henderson as the sole finalist for the Louisiana Tech job in late October. On the same day, in a surprise move, the UL board appointed Grambling State University president and former Democratic state senator Rick Gallot as the new system head. The leadership shuffle—particularly the way Henderson was hired—raised questions about transparency at a public institution where it is common for faculty members to have input in such searches.
Public comments submitted online and obtained by Inside Higher Ed via a public records request show that numerous observers raised alarm about how the Louisiana Tech job was filled.
“As an alumni of Louisiana Tech University I have real concerns about the process used to select the next President. Louisiana Tech is a prestigious university at both the National and International level. To limit the selection of the next President to one individual is a travesty to [the] University and it’s alumni. Dr. Henderson may be the perfect selection for the position, but how can anyone know without the creation of a search committee to make that determination,” read one comment submitted online. “It is inexcusable to treat Louisiana Tech in this manner!!!!”
Several comments commended Henderson as a candidate but questioned the hiring process. Others raised concerns about the lack of transparency and disregard for system rules.
In an email to Inside Higher Ed, UL system spokesperson Cami Geisman defended the process.
“The searches for Louisiana Tech and the System must be viewed separately as each has distinct circumstances to consider. For Louisiana Tech, [neither] the Board’s rules and bylaws nor state statute contemplated a sitting System president’s interest in being a university president. When Dr. Henderson expressed interest in the position, the Board thoughtfully considered the procedural and practical implications and carved a path forward that, while outside of our normal process, maintained an opportunity for community engagement,” Geisman wrote. “The Board named Dr. Henderson as the sole finalist for the position and allowed community feedback during a two week period and hosted a public forum before the Board’s interview. There was no way to consider Dr. Henderson for the position without altering the search process.”
She noted that the system president selection was not subject to the same rules. And while faculty leaders have expressed disappointment in the search processes, Geisman argued that strong and familiar leaders were hired for the jobs.
“The faculty and staff of Louisiana Tech have been in Dr. Henderson’s direct line of supervision for the past seven years. He led our institutions through multiple natural disasters, periods of resource scarcity, and a global pandemic. He is a known and trusted leader with expertise in organizational culture and a demonstrated commitment to shared governance,” Geisman wrote. “Similarly, President Gallot has led one of our member institutions, Grambling State University, the past seven years. Another known entity whose previous experience in government make him uniquely qualified to lead the System.”
As the dust settles on Louisiana’s dramatic leadership search, Nova Southeastern is sticking to its unusual succession plan in the hopes of avoiding the pitfalls that have marked the beginnings of new presidencies at many other institutions.