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In a letter to the late William G. Bowen, the former president of Princeton University and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Brian Rosenberg, then president of Macalester College, wrote, “I think organizations with a culture of suspicion make decisions to avoid the worst, while those with a culture of trust make decisions to aspire to the best.”

For the last 18 years, after a career as a faculty member, dean, academic vice president and president, I have served as a consultant for more than 115 colleges and universities—coaching presidents, conducting 360-degree evaluations of presidents and working with boards on governance. I have also been a presidential search consultant and of counsel to two national search firms. In this period, I’ve seen a marked shift in terms of institutional cultures. Specifically, many institutions that had enjoyed a reasonable level of trust among campus constituencies, particularly between the faculty, on the one hand, and the senior administration and the board, on the other, are now dominated by suspicion—which often generates antagonism.

The result: we are seeing increasing numbers of instances in which the faculty, often after unsuccessfully appealing to the board for help, votes no-confidence in the president and, in some cases, the board itself. What is especially striking is that many of those votes are increasingly occurring during a president’s first or second year.

In addition, more presidents are departing abruptly these days, as recent Inside Higher Ed articles have described, and presidential tenures are shorter than in the past. According to the recent American Council on Education survey of college presents, in 2006, the average presidential tenure was 8.5 years. In the most recent study, it had dropped to 5.9 years.

I’m not alone is saying that I have never been so worried about American higher education and the growing erosion of seasoned leadership talent in an era of huge challenges. And based on my experience, I believe boards of trustees can take one key step to ameliorate the situation: they can improve presidential searches.

A Politicized Environment

Every board with which I have worked has taken very seriously its responsibility to hire presidents. At the same time, only 8 percent of private college trustees and 9 percent of public colleges trustees have experience in the academy other than having been students. Many come from the corporate world, the government, other nonprofit organizations or the military and don’t have an in-depth understanding of the academy—which has its own idiosyncratic culture, language and customs.

Fortunately, some presidents have fostered faculty-trustee collaboration and made it a priority that their board members understand academic conventions. Sadly, however, others have not done so and have even encouraged trustees to disdain those conventions.

Moreover, after the 2008 economic downturn, many boards—which previously had defined their major fiduciary duties as finance and facilities—became concerned with the quality of the academic programs, the student experience and student outcomes. Although I celebrate the fact that trustees now understand that they have broader responsibilities, what has made me lose sleep in the last few years is that the same polarization and intolerance for differing points of view we see in our larger society has infected the academy, as well. That polarization has undermined the once strongly held belief that colleges and universities should be places where fervent but civil discourse is the norm and where talented faculty members challenge their students to think critically, test assumptions and engage in impassioned yet thoughtful debate.

I’ve seen growing numbers of trustees, particularly those in public institutions, take their cues from their state legislators or the governor, some of whom actively seek to dilute or eliminate tenure altogether. Some state legislatures are also passing laws that usurp what previously, and appropriately, has been considered to be the faculty’s primary responsibility for academic matters and that override academic freedom.

In this environment, presidents of public institutions also worry about offending their state legislators, governors and other elected officials. When Inside Higher Ed asked 40 public college presidents in Florida to weigh in on state higher education reforms, for example, none were willing to speak, even when offered anonymity.

In addition, while most trustees value faculty members in their role as teacher scholars for being critical thinkers who approach questions by considering all perspectives and who deliberate extensively, they are often impatient when faculty members exhibit those same qualities about matters of institutional importance. Some trustees are especially impatient at the amount of time it takes for faculty to contemplate changes, must less to plan and implement them. Granted, that impatience is appropriate at times, but definitely not always.

Some trustees—thankfully not the majority—also seek to influence the curriculum despite their lack of academic expertise. (Think critical race theory, gender studies and topics pertaining to diversity, equity and inclusion). I also know of instances where trustees have injected themselves in hiring and firing both administrators and faculty members. I know of even more instances where board members have inappropriately and unilaterally demanded time and attention from senior leadership without working through the president.

The Changing Nature of Candidates

In part because of this environment, fewer deans and provosts are interested in a presidency—the demands have become greater and much more fraught than before. In addition, some are simply not interested in being their institution’s chief fundraiser. Then, too, whereas in the past some chief academic officers were attracted to the presidency because in that role that they would become the moral and academic spokespeople for their campuses, today most presidents avoid that role in order not to alienate potential donors.

This lack of interest on the part of chief academic officers has meant that colleges and universities now typically look outside as well as inside the academy, relying on search consultants to populate the pool with so-called nontraditional candidates—not only those from outside the academy but also those with higher ed experience in nonacademic areas like finance, fundraising, enrollment, student affairs and legal matters. These candidates often are known to search firms but not to college and university presidential search committees.

While a number of nontraditional presidents have been successful, they are frequently the ones who have had troubled and abbreviated tenures, often following a faculty vote of no confidence. In my experience, the most common complaints are that such presidents haven’t understood or respected the conventions of shared governance, have not been transparent, have taken a top-down approach and have disdained the kind of deliberation about decisions that many faculty members desire.

Presidents who have had higher ed experience but not at institutions of the sort that they have been asked to lead also often misread their new culture and soon find themselves at odds with the faculty and sometimes the staff, students and board. For instance, presidents who move from smaller colleges to larger ones are often unprepared for the complexities of their new campus. Or the opposite can occur: I also know of a number of small college presidents who came from larger public and private universities and were totally unprepared for the expectations of their new campuses. In some instances, those who were used to having robust staffs have caused dismay on their new campuses by hiring a number of new senior administrators into positions that did not previously exist. In other cases, such new presidents have established a new level of bureaucracy and formality to replace the more open and informal relationships that previously characterized their campuses.

I have also seen search committees and boards who were enamored by the prestige of the institution where a candidate works because they believe that those who come from highly ranked and generally affluent institutions “know how it’s done.” But what these committees and boards don’t recognize is that those types of candidates are often totally baffled by how to deal with significantly constrained resources and lean staffs. They aren’t used to the large variety of roles that they as presidents need to play. They have never experienced a structural deficit, so they have no experience in making cuts. Some have had little practice in saying no to requests.

In addition, many colleges and universities, motivated by their understandable wish to embrace diversity of various kinds, have hired candidates who are extremely talented but who aren’t seasoned enough to be a president. Although they may have been deans within a large university or administrators of programs, some have been woefully unprepared for the complex set of responsibilities and round-the-clock demands of the presidency. Others have been overwhelmed by the lack of anonymity that accompanies the presidency or the amount of time and energy they need to devote external responsibilities—fundraising, meeting with alumni, participating in their local community and working with elected officials. In addition, far too many new presidents have no knowledge about how to work effectively with their boards. Had these newly minted presidents had one more advanced administrative role before becoming a president, they might well have avoided making what I view as rookie mistakes.

Looking Ahead in Searches

Despite all the negatives, I’ve also seen some wonderfully successful new presidents who have connected authentically with their faculty and staff colleagues, their students, and their trustees. They have listened to all campus constituencies with care, building their vision on the institution’s strengths while remaining mindful of and transparent about its challenges. They been engaged with their alumni and have been splendid fundraisers.

Especially in light of the environment and circumstances I’ve described, I am convinced that it is essential that boards better understand the needs of their specific institution as a central trustee responsibility, especially when conducting presidential searches. Such understanding is especially vital if boards are to choose presidents who have had sufficient and pertinent experience, whose values align with that of the institution, and who—to put it bluntly—will be a cultural fit.

The major role that executive search firms play must also be recognized and considered. Today, more than 90 percent of American colleges and universities use such search firms when they are seeking a new president (a significant shift from 1975–76, when only 2 percent did so). There are a great many reasons for this phenomenon.

As colleges and universities embraced affirmative action, beginning in 1965, they moved from focusing on their own, often small, networks of potential candidates known to them (in the past, these were euphemistically referred to as “the old boys’ networks”) to wanting national and even international searches with—as time went on—increasingly diverse pools.

Moreover, trustees from the corporate world are accustomed to using search firms to identify their most promising candidates. They are attracted to search firms because they typically have a large staff of people who can build the pool and conduct due diligence as well as have robust databases of potential candidates. Search consultants for corporations are generally charged with bringing forward the names of top candidates. In contrast, college and university search advisory committees—composed of trustees, administrators, faculty, staff and students—tend to read all the submitted applications and narrow the pool in order to make a recommendation to the full board. Newly hired presidents chosen by trustees who have embraced the corporate model sometimes find themselves in a precarious position with their new campus colleagues who are skeptical of anyone chosen without robust campus engagement.

Given all this, and based on my extensive experience with searches, I recommend the following to boards when it comes to presidential searches.

  • Make sure the search firm and its consultants have a sufficient understanding of the institution so that they can productively conduct “listening sessions” on campus and effectively translate the needs and strengths of the campus to candidates.
  • Focus on specific consultants rather than simply selecting a firm and accepting whichever person the firm offers. Excellent search consultants are to be valued, even cherished, but the business has become extremely competitive, with many consultants facilitating a large number of searches at one time. Thus, I urge boards to vet the particular consultant (or consultants) the firm assigns.
  • Do careful due diligence before deciding about a consultant. Consider whether the consultant has pertinent higher education experience. Read sample prospectuses that the consultant has drafted to see if they are insightful and compelling or just generic. Look for consultants who have written prospectuses that not only don’t all sound alike but that also identify the institution’s particular challenges and opportunities.
  • Involve the campus search committee in checking references. While the search firm can and should do due extensive diligence about semifinalists and especially finalists, the search committee should also conduct its share of reference checking.  I stress this because I know of too many instances of failed reference checking—such as the search consultant who ignored the fact that the preferred candidate, an experienced president, had served in four separate presidencies for less than two years each.
  • Have the committee and the consultants agree on the qualities they are seeking and then ensure they are asking the right questions of references and those they call “off-list.” Questions really do need to be pointed and not of the “tell me about her management style” sort. For example, references might be asked specifically about how the candidates have inspired change in their current and past roles, how they have dealt with resistance to change, and—if they are currently at a college or university—how they have approached shared governance. They might also ask about whether candidates delegate effectively, how they have handled any serious budgetary or personnel problems and, when appropriate, how candidates have worked with boards.
  • Ask the search committee chair to assign committee members to teams, with a trustee and a member of the campus community on each team to do reference calls.

More fundamentally, each board must also come to an understanding of shared governance as it is best practiced, recognizing that even as it is responsible for the health and integrity of the institution in all its aspects, it delegates operational responsibility to the president—who in turn delegates primary, albeit recommending, responsibility for academic matters to the faculty and delegates operational responsibility for nonacademic matters to members of the senior leadership team. Although presidents and boards may overturn faculty recommendations that are inconsistent with the institution’s mission or for which there are not sufficient resources, they should give considerable deference to the collective wisdom of the faculty on such matters as the curriculum, tenure and promotion, and academic standards. Indeed, presidents and trustees both need to understand that thriving institutions are the product of inspired, committed faculty and staff members.

Boards and presidents must also agree on institutional priorities and the timetable for seeking to realize them. In addition, boards must support the president and the faculty in today’s charged political climate, protecting them from inappropriate political influence in order to ensure academic freedom, one of the hallmarks of American higher education. Finally, and perhaps most important, when selecting a president, boards should focus on fit rather than being unduly influenced by the prestige of the institution from which a candidate comes or the personal prestige of the candidate.

In conclusion, just as the college presidency is more challenging and demanding that in the past, so is trusteeship. But as my examples above of successful presidencies suggest, those boards that understand the strengths of the academic culture and that see the members of campus community and especially the faculty, as their partners, are those who make the greatest difference to the institution that they serve. They are also celebrated for modeling the values that most of our colleges and universities embrace for their students: they together gather data, think hard about values, are clear about their goals, model collaboration and civil discourse, and foster a culture of trust.

Susan Resneck Pierce is president and professor emerita of the University of Puget Sound and president of SRP Consulting, LLC. Her most recent books, On Being Presidential and Governance Reconsidered, were published by Jossey-Bass.

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