An Alternative Approach to Finding Presidents

Lucie Lapovsky suggests that colleges consider planning for succession rather than automatically going to an outside search.

May 12, 2006

Succession planning is part of the culture of corporate life. Many CEOs are asked to provide the names of two or three people at the company who could step in tomorrow to fill their shoes -- not just in an emergency but as a permanent successor. In colleges and universities, we talk about succession planning in academic and administrative departments but we almost never discuss it at the level of the president. Colleges today are very concerned about succession planning in academic departments, with the graying of the faculty. Serious thought is being given at many institutions to maintaining the continuity of departments as retirements loom. Many institutions have professional development programs and work to develop career plans for faculty and staff providing appropriate professional opportunities and a clear path for upward mobility. Why doesn’t the same concern hold for succession to the presidency?

According to the American Council on Education's 2002 book, The American College President, 28 percent of new presidents at public colleges had been promoted from within, while 24 percent of presidents at private colleges had been promoted from within. A recent look at data on new college presidents indicates that about half of the presidents who came from within their own institution moved into that position from having been the acting president. Clearly, institutions of higher education provide training ground for each other. The most frequent transition scenario is for a provost from one college to be passed over when there is a presidential vacancy at her institution only to be selected as president at another institution.

Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, found that 90 percent of the companies that went “from good to great” had new leaders who came from within; while more than 67 percent of the good companies that didn’t become great had recruited new leaders from outside the company. The advantage of internal leaders, Collins says, is that “they know not only who should be on the bus, but where they should sit.” It takes a newcomer a while to figure this out, he adds. “By copying the outside leadership model, higher education is copying the practices of mediocre companies.”

The rationale most colleges and universities cite for conducting national searches in spite of strong internal candidates is usually to “see who else is out there.” If the internal candidate is eventually selected, he or she then can be acknowledged as the best, having “won.” For many internal “winners,” however, that search became a test of endurance. In addition, for the internal candidate, this is a very challenging time because any decisions this candidate makes are bound to upset some campus constituencies, while outsiders can be seen as having offended no one during the search process. In cases where the internal candidate is not selected, he or she often leaves the institution soon after the search. In a few instances, new presidents have courted the unsuccessful insider and persuaded him to remain on the team by acknowledging his strengths and contributions, but this isn’t easy.

Why does higher education favor outside searches over succession planning? Several reasons are usually given:

  • First, selecting a new leader usually is an inclusive process with multiple stakeholders who seldom are all on the same page in terms of goals and objectives let alone an early favored candidate.
  • Second, a search process is the way we hire new faculty, and thus it is assumed we should apply this model to the presidential process. The presidency is viewed in higher education as a new position rather than a stepping stone in the institutional hierarchy (despite the fact that provosts and other senior officers often ascend to the presidency). If the presidency were viewed as a promotion to the top position, we might consider establishing an internal development and promotion process.
  • Third, many experts in higher education and many board members find that colleges and universities go to the outside for new leadership because it is believed that an internal candidate cannot make the needed changes. In the corporate world, Collins notes, “The more a company needs to change itself, the greater the imperative to pick an insider.” This is exactly the reason most people in higher education point to choosing an outsider. The belief is widely held that an insider is unlikely to make necessary changes; that an insider will give you more of what you already have. Some have even said that if the insider knew what needed to be changed, it should already have been done.
  • Fourth, boards often believe that an insider will not be able to make the necessary personnel changes because he or she remains loyal to former colleagues.
  • Fifth, Richard Chait, professor of higher education at Harvard University, notes in an interview we had that many colleges and universities want the best person in the nation, not the best person at the institution to be its leader. Chait also noted that the search process is a cost-efficient way for an institution to import prestige; the new president usually comes from a more prestigious institution. In addition, a new person is forced to tell the institution’s story again; she will give the institution a “new narrator.”

All acknowledge that it is hard to attract good external candidates when you have a visible and strong internal candidate, especially if you can’t guarantee the confidentiality of the process. Tom Ingram, who recently retired as president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, who “endured” a search as an internal candidate before he ascended to the top of AGB in 1992, says, “Our cultural expectations and ethos in this country lead us to external searches. We seem to abhor someone internally because they have usually offended someone; our memories are long and unforgiving. We prefer to reach out to someone we don’t know as well.”

Does Collins’ work on corporate succession planning apply to higher education? I think it should at least prod us to reconsider how we look at leadership changes in our colleges and universities.

I also think we should look at how we are doing leadership transitions in light of the cost, both in actual dollars and in the toll it takes on an institution in terms of the time it takes to do the search; the time it takes for a new president if coming from the outside to move the agenda forward and the time and cost it puts on the institution when it makes a bad hire. A search process will usually take a year during which an institution is often in limbo as a transition is expected and the agenda is stalled. If the choice is then for an outsider, the new person will usually want between six months and a year during which he learns about the institution and listens and learns from all of the constituents before setting his own course. We have now lost as much as two years of forward momentum for the institution as compared to what can be a smooth transition with an internal candidate who knows the players and the institution.

Finally, the costs both in emotional anguish out of pocket costs when a bad hire is made are usually very substantial. We have seen many visible examples of this recently. Maybe it just seems as if the situation is getting worse because of heightened publicity and the rising price tags to terminate unsatisfactory relationships. But certainly the costs are real and are draining on the institution that has to go through the trauma of an unsuccessful leadership change.

Bill Berkeley, who serves on the boards of New York University, Georgetown University, and the University of Connecticut, says that “an internal successor will decrease the possibilities of the unknown.” He complains that many schools believe in change for change’s sake. It should be noted that the last leadership changes at both NYU and Georgetown saw internal candidates succeed to the presidency.

A key difference between higher education and business is that we have many stakeholders who have a voice in the governance of our institutions, the strongest voice, of course, being the faculty. Everyone involved in the transitions at Wilmington College and the College of New Rochelle, two colleges which chose new presidents from within without a search, agreed that naming a new president without a search would not have been successful had there not been support from the faculty.

Does this mean we all should give more consideration to internal candidates on the assumption that they know the institutional culture and the players, thus making it less likely that the leadership choice will turn out to be a mistake? Should we explore new ways of including faculty in discussions of leadership transitions at the top? Should we look at different ways of viewing interim or acting presidents, a position that often is a stepping stone to the presidency? Should board members have discussions about succession planning among themselves? With the current president? How can faculty be included in such discussions in a productive and meaningful way? Should boards annually evaluate internal talent at their institution?  Should colleges look to develop successors to current presidents? I suggest that we should entertain a dialogue on this subject with an open mind that a change in the way we do business ought to at least be considered.

Lucie Lapovsky is an economist who is the former president of Mercy College, in New York. She currently writes and consults on issues related to higher education finance, leadership and planning. This article was adapted from a piece that ran in Trusteeship.


Lucie Lapovsky is an economist who is the former president of Mercy College, in New York. She currently writes and consults on issues related to higher education finance, leadership and planning. This article was adapted from a piece that ran in Trusteeship.


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