Prerequisites for an effective presidential search
To say that I know a thing or two about presidential academic research is neither hyperbole nor pride. After all, I have been involved in about 15 such researches, received eleven presidential offers, and served as chancellors of public universities in three different states. Additionally, my portfolio as vice president of a multi-campus university included overseeing chancellor’s research and performance reviews. Now that I’ve shared my credences, let’s move on to the essence of this column and the hoped-for takeaway, which is this: Presidential searches don’t have to be complicated!
While this claim may be generally true, it appears that more and more presidential searches, of institutions of all types and sizes, are running up against the safeguards of reality in the context of overzealous expectations. Having worked closely with university boards for almost half a century, I am convinced that the The most important role of a board is to recruit, support and retain the services of an effective President and CEO. Failure to do so has potentially catastrophic consequences, not only for the person selected but also for the institution.
If my statement is true, then what are the preconditions for an effective presidential search? If there is nothing magical about the number of prerequisites, here are five that I want to highlight.
1. Administrators need to determine what kind of leadership the university needs before start a search. An essential aspect of this determination involves seeking the contributions of key stakeholders: faculty and staff, students and alumni, donors and policy makers, among others. Too often, in my opinion, directors and search committees focus on the vision of potential candidates, rather than articulating their own vision and seeking alignment between their vision and the experiences and attributes of various candidates.
2. Articulating and implementing a transparent research process is not only essential from the point of view of upholding long-standing traditions of shared governance, but such a process also helps to assure applicants that their application will be successful. treated with the highest degree of confidentiality, professionalism, and punctuality. Likewise, it provides the selected person with a positive basis to begin their presidency.
3. To use or not to use a research firm is not a trivial matter. While a good research firm, and there are many, is worth the investment, choosing the law one is of utmost importance. Contrary to popular belief in some quarters, recruiting firms do not not maintain a bank of CVs of the people for whom they are trying to find internships. In my experience, recruiting firms are made up of professionals who are committed to helping their clients by identifying candidates who have the experience, skills and attributes required to help colleges and universities accomplish their mission and their vision. While it’s true that recruiting firms often call in candidates already placed for recommendations, that doesn’t necessarily mean that every suggestion they receive is shared with a recruiting committee. It is important to keep in mind that a successful placement is a research company’s most important means of publicity and the opportunity for repeat engagements. To those who question the cost of retaining the services of a search company, I encourage them to consider the higher cost of a failed search. More importantly, using a research firm does not relieve members of the academic community of the need to take an active role in identifying and recruiting strong and preferred candidates.
4. Confidentiality issues. There are those inside and outside the academy who firmly believe that for presidential research to be authentic, it must be public from start to finish. I disagree with respect! In my opinion, applicants do not want their names and photos posted on social media or on an institution’s website. It is a well known fact that only one candidate will emerge victorious from a search. Therefore, many applicants do not want to jeopardize their current jobs by participating in searches where the names of applicants are prematurely made public. I know there may be those who strongly disagree with this point of view, but until or unless one finds oneself embroiled in academic presidential research, it is little more than a hypothetical scenario, in which the consequences make no sense for everyone except the candidates themselves.
5. A complete job profile that captures all aspects of the university’s status, challenges as well as opportunities, is an essential first step in identifying candidates with the skills required to move the institution forward. In taking office, no president should be left to discover that the institution is facing serious financial difficulties or is about to lose its accreditation. A good research firm can help an institution develop a truthful job profile without discouraging or scaring potential candidates who are the perfect fit for the presidency.
While writing this column, I found myself immersed in reading a truly fascinating book, The great upheaval: past, present of higher education, and Uncertain future, co-written by Arthur Levine and Scott Van Pelt. The authors indirectly argue for the importance of leadership in the academy: leadership that includes higher education is undergoing transformation and knows that tomorrow will not be a repeat of yesterday. Such leadership is much more than a president’s name on an organization chart or a high-resolution portrait on a web page. During this great upheaval, it is imperative that colleges and universities pass presidential research.
Dr. Charlie Nelms is Chancellor Emeritus of North Carolina Central University. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieNelms.