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All Deliberate Speed


Menachem Wecker

statue of a man thinking


​Is It Time to Rethink Presidential Hiring?

On March 17, 2014, Whit Babcock, the athletic director at Virginia Tech, publicly thanked coach James Johnson for his “dedication and hard work for our university and our basketball program over the past seven years.” But, he added, the program needed a “change and a new direction” that didn’t include Johnson at the helm.

Just four days later, on that Friday, Brent (Buzz) Williams, the men’s basketball coach at Marquette University (WI), was reported to have landed the job. And soon he was telling the Hokies community that he welcomed his new appointment at Virginia Tech, and promised, “I’ll work at it every single day, and I’ll do right by the institution.”

The rapid pace at which colleges and universities hire coaches often seems to echo the medieval declaration, “The king is dead; long live the king!” That approach, designed to demonstrate publicly that the monarchy had undergone a smooth transition even in the face of a potential power void, is of course not unique to intercollegiate athletics—it’s pervasive among corporations and most other types of organizations.

Leadership turnover at a college or university’s top spot, however, tends to happen at a more contemplative pace: Six months or even a year can often elapse between an outgoing president’s announcement and an incoming president’s first day on the job.

In days of yore, this lag time might simply be chalked up to the sometimes-idiosyncratic nature of higher education. But as presidential selection processes generally stay in the slow lane, two other presidential trend lines are accelerating dramatically:

As reflected in the most recent edition of ACE’s The American College President research report, the length of presidential tenures is decreasing significantly. The average president’s or chancellor’s tenure in 2006—the date of the previous survey—was eight and a half years. That number had dropped to seven years by 2011, nearly an 18 percent decrease in just five years.

At the same time, the report revealed, a critical mass of presidents is fast approaching retirement age: In 1986, only 14 percent of campus presidents were 61 or older. As of 2011, 58 percent were older than 61. In some sectors of higher education, this aging is even more pronounced: About 75 percent of community college CEOs plan to retire within the next decade, according to a survey by the American Association of Community Colleges.

Against this backdrop of increasing urgency and upheaval, it’s a fair question to ask: Is it time to rethink the way college and university presidents get hired?


Different Differences

It’s worth pointing out, of course, that the postsecondary CEO’s role is very different from a corporate CEO’s, not to mention a coach’s.

Coaches are typically fired (as Virginia Tech’s Johnson was) or announce their resignations abruptly, so it’s necessary to hire quickly, said Thomas R. Kepple Jr., president of the American Academic Leadership Institute in Washington, DC.

“Losing a year of recruiting has a four-year negative impact on a team’s ability to compete,” said Kepple, who is also president emeritus of Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. “In the case of tuitiondriven institutions (generally Division III), the loss of a football recruiting class can have a serious negative financial impact on the budget as well.

“On the other hand, more often than not, presidents are replaced less urgently—the current president announces his or her retirement a year ahead of departure, giving the institution ample time to establish a search committee and criteria for the next president,” Kepple added.

Jean A. Dowdall, a partner at the executive search firm Witt/Kieffer in Philadelphia who specializes in nonprofit and higher education senior executive searches, said that in her experience, the length of presidential searches varies, but takes an average of six months.

“It’s very deliberative,” she said, but noted that the pace wasn’t a matter of foot-dragging: “Certainly institutions would like to see the searches move more quickly.”

While emphasizing that her practice and expertise focus exclusively on higher education rather than corporate searches, she noted that there appears to be a significant gap between the way corporations and postsecondary institutions conduct presidential searches.

“The biggest difference between industry and higher education is the very powerful expectation of shared governance” at the latter, Dowdall said.

ACE President Molly Corbett Broad, who previously held the top spot at the university systems of North Carolina and Arizona, also said the length of an institution’s presidential search is often linked to its governance structure—including the amount of governance that’s shared with faculty.

“The search committees are usually large and represent all of the constituencies, with the goal that the president, who carries a wide array of responsibilities, satisfies both the faculty and the board, as well as the alumni, community, and the students,” Broad said.

She added that while members of these committees can become valuable ambassadors to their respective constituencies on behalf of the president who is eventually appointed, this broad spectrum of input can sometimes extend the process as committee members search for a candidate who can “walk on water without scaring any of the fish.”

Size Matters

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, a consultant at Korn Ferry and president emeritus at The George Washington University in Washington, DC, agreed that the large, consensus-driven search committees common to many postsecondary presidency searches take longer.

But he said a college or university presidential search is necessarily very different from the process of selecting, for example, a collegiate coach. Search committees for coaches tend to include a vice president, an athletic director, and someone from a booster club or trustee group, but not the “Noah’s ark that seeks a president: trustees, faculty, administration, staff, students, and neighbors,” according to Trachtenberg.

Not only can a small search committee act more nimbly than a large one, he said, but coaches—unlike presidents—tend to be represented by agents and lawyers, who can do a great deal of time-consuming legwork for their clients. Not even the pool of viable candidates is comparably sized.

“The universe of coaches is smaller than that of potential presidents, so you are searching in a smaller, more shallow pool,” said Trachtenberg, who is co-author of the 2013 book Presidencies Derailed: Why University Leaders Fail and How to Prevent It. Another important difference between presidents and coaches is their prior work experience, according to Trachtenberg: Former provosts, deans, trustees, lawyers, politicians, doctors, academics, ambassadors, and business leaders have all become postsecondary presidents, he noted, while coaches need to have specific sports experience.

“If you know what you are looking for in a defined community, you can get things done more quickly than if you are less certain, have more decision makers, and are searching a wider turf,” he said. “Finding a coach is an exercise in management. Finding a president is an exercise in politics.”

And a shorter search isn’t always a better search, Dowdall said. In her 18 years as a search consultant, she has seen a wide variation in the size of search committees—as many as 44 members and fewer than 10, depending on the type of institution and who appoints the board. But she has seen no correlation either way between successful outcomes and the brevity of a search process.

Although smaller search committees can be faster and more maneuverable, she said, fewer people means fewer perspectives. “I would rather have an extra couple of people [on the committee],” she said. “It’s a matter of a happy medium.”

Inside vs. Outside

Broad also pointed to a related difference between where companies and postsecondary institutions tend to look for their next presidents:

“We do not do succession planning the way a company does, where a company is really quite embarrassed if it has to go to the outside to hire its new CEO—it is a longstanding habit that institutions reach outside of the college or university to find their next president,” she said. “Part of this is that the barnacles of the guy you know are more evident than the guy whose barnacles you haven’t seen.”

Having to recruit and vet someone from outside the institution obviously takes more time than merely promoting an internal candidate from the senior leadership ranks who’s been waiting in the wings. And while companies tend to have a more top-down model of governance, academic search committees know that higher education’s shared-governance model can make it harder for an internal candidate to succeed.

In academe, Dowdall said, “Over the years, people who are in leadership roles make decisions that make people unhappy.” As a consequence, she said, when an institution’s presidency becomes vacant and its provost or other internal candidates throw their hats into the ring, they may have too many critics to gather the wide support necessary to be appointed president.

With regard to corporate leaders, “I’m guessing it’s not that they don’t have critics—it’s that the critics don’t get to influence the decision as much as they do in higher education,” she added. “It’s a very different workforce. Faculty have tenure—they’re not going anywhere.”

A Changing Landscape

But for all the structural differences between a postsecondary presidential search and a search for a coach or corporate CEO, there are signs that the former may become more similar to the latter.

Traditionally, for example, a coach’s institutional value has typically been evaluated by his or her win-and-loss record, whereas college and university presidents are judged by “much more complex and multi-faceted exercises,” said Bryan E. Carlson, president of the Registry for College and University Presidents in Peabody, Massachusetts, and a former president of Mount Ida College (MA).

“That said, the ‘gap’ has, perhaps, begun to narrow, as presidential performance is increasingly subject to the ‘scorecards’ of enrollment results and financial outcomes,” Carlson added.

And with regard to the shared governance model that traditionally distinguished academe from the business world, Dowdall wondered aloud about the implications of the fact that a growing majority of postsecondary faculty are untenured.

“Are we going to see some of this change? That’s a logical conclusion if tenure is shaping the power,” she said.

Kevin P. Reilly, presidential advisor for leadership at ACE and previously the second-longest-serving president of the University of Wisconsin System, said higher education is already demonstrating some adaptability in hiring. In some of the 31 chancellor and interim-chancellor searches he helped guide in Wisconsin, the search committee was able to trim its timetable in an effort to keep good candidates in the pool when it was clear that the timeline might outlast good candidates’ patience.

“There can be downsides to very long searches,” he said, noting that candidates might accept a competitor’s offer. “They will go for the bird in the hand rather than the one that’s still in the bush.”

But he also sees room for further improvement in presidential searches at colleges and universities. He cited a 2009 ACE study of chief academic officers— traditionally the leaders most likely to move on to a college or university presidency—finding that only 30 percent aspired to be presidents.

“They say, ‘I’ve seen that up close; I don’t want that,’” Reilly said.

As a result, he said, the challenge is to widen and nurture the presidential pipeline: “How do we early on identify younger people who we think have the skills, inclination, extreme courage, [and] wherewithal . . . and work with them in developing a whole range of skills earlier on than we do now?” he said.

There also needs to be a wider pool that reflects national demographics, and there must be more cultivation of leadership appetite and competencies among women and minorities, according to Reilly.

Finally, he added, higher education needs to emphasize the unique ways that presidents can impact people’s lives for the better.

An example leapt to mind: Thirteen years ago, Reilly and the deans of nursing programs at five of the campuses in the Wisconsin system faced a need to more effectively deliver training to nurses in the state who wanted to pursue a baccalaureate education, but couldn’t.

In his then role as chancellor of University of Wisconsin–Extension, Reilly worked to coordinate the campuses, helping to create a shared distancelearning program that helped the nurses keep their jobs, complete their degrees, and still have time for their families.

Solving such practical problems and making a big difference in people’s lives is a regular part of the job description, according to Reilly:

“There are opportunities to do that, and they’re there all the time if you can see that and muster the energy of your colleagues to work on them,” he said. “We are in the human development business.”

Menachem Wecker, who lives in Washington, DC, is a former education reporter at U.S. News & World Report.


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