Hire Today But Not for This Moment: Advice for Higher Education Presidential Search Committees

One of the more disturbing trends in American higher education is the decreasing tenure of senior administrators, especially college and university presidents. Most research finds that presidents serve on average six or seven years. Occasionally, often at faith-based institutions, for instance, the tenure is considerably longer.

Hiring Requirements Vary Across Institutions

Each institution has special conditions and unique requirements that shape its pool of applicants. But the nature of the job very much depends on where the school is in its institutional “life.”

The hiring requirements for colleges that attract first-generation students, rely on adult and continuing education programming, or invest heavily in a residential liberal arts college experience are dramatically different.

The job description for presidents at community colleges and Research I universities also require unique skills and specialties that may be quite distinct.

Politics of Shared Governance in Search Committee

That’s why it’s terribly important for a search committee to understand what is asked of it. Typically, these committees are carefully balanced among trustees, faculty, staff, alumni, and students to provide broader perspective, stakeholder involvement, and depth.

Presidential search committees also reflect the political dynamics of shared governance — a carefully choreographed dance among skeptical stakeholders — to be certain that each can advocate for their constituents’ concerns.

Position Description Defines Outcome So Get it Right

The search should begin with a good position description. Position descriptions can make or break a search and will define the outcome. In this regard, the first principle should be — be careful what you ask for.

Too often the search description relies unrealistically on what many describe as finding a combination of “Clark Kent and Superman on a good day.” It’s sophomoric and an unsatisfying answer to the question of “where do we go next?”

Hiring for Today’s Campus or for Institution’s Future?

Sometimes a position description reflects a moment in time on a campus.

  • Is there something in the recent accreditation report, for example, that must be addressed?
  • Is there a campus issue that colors the likely selection from within even the most competitive pool?
  • Would the campus community benefit from fresh perspective after a long presidential tenure ends?
  • Does the institution need a fundraiser?
  • Do most agree that the college’s brand is slipping?

It’s at this stage that words matter most. Will the institution craft language to attract a candidate into a world that they wish existed rather than the harsher realities that the new president will face?

Or will the executive search firm consolidate its findings to produce a generic job description that conforms more to the roster of candidates on their virtual rolodex than to what the college or university actually needs?

Board Must Look Beyond Itself in Hiring New President

The Board has the principal responsibility and ultimate authority to hire a new president. The biggest danger is that the internal internecine warfare on some boards may interfere with the outcome. Or, others — most notably the board chair — may shape the process to get “my person” in place.

While it is critical that a board chair and new president get along, their future partnership should not be a top search priority. Simply put, the board should seek the best candidate with both the board chair and new president working hard to accommodate one another.

Three Presidential Types: Presider, Change Agent, Strategist

As boards begin to organize the search committee and craft the position description, they face at least three generic choices from among their pool of candidates.

The first is the presider president — a kind of ceremonial mayor who will preside but not typically lead the university in a particular direction. This candidate is often a popular choice among key internal stakeholders because the candidate often comes from within the ranks of faculty administrators from an aspirant school. In these circumstances, the board often exerts the most authority in shared governance.

A second choice is the change agent. These candidates wish to leave their mark on the institution, sometimes in collaboration but often by “breaking eggs,” as the saying goes, to make their improved omelet.

Change agent presidents may have fresh ideas, national reputations, and come from outside academia or from a different type of higher education institution. They are most likely to run afoul on key issues of transparency and collegiality. The learning curve can be steep, and the egos can be impressive.

The third type of candidate is the strategist. In ideal circumstances, the strategist is the most attractive candidate, especially if the candidate can sell a strategic direction within a broader vision of quality and excellence.

They understand academia but also are pragmatic enough to appreciate the competitive business environment into which they will be thrust. They view higher education as a multi-dimensional chess game in which momentum creates differentiation that builds to excellence.

Challenge is Hiring Today but Not for This Moment

Colleges and universities hire at a single point in time when what they need — if the position description is clear — should be obvious. The danger is, of course, that they will hire for the moment.

Any choice might work, several will do well, but only one or two will shine. It’s not always the most articulate or those with the best pedigree. Success starts and ends with the position description. Who is the best fit?

Ultimately, the challenge for any presidential search committee is how to hire for the unforeseen moments that evolving colleges and universities must face in the future.

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Brian C. Mitchell

Brian C. Mitchell

Founding partner of Academic Innovators, a solutions company. Author of How to Run a College. Former president of Bucknell University.

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