The Vision Thing in Higher Education

Finding a good college president is a little like choosing the right college. You know it when you feel it.

This is not to say that the best presidents are all things to all people. College presidencies are demanding jobs with multiple constituencies. A president’s calendar is much like the college’s budget – carefully rationed, heavily overcommitted, and controlled by an annual cycle of events, claims on it by constituents, and the unexpected.

If the board of trustees expects the president to lead, they must look carefully at the foundation provided to make leadership possible.

At best, executive search firms do cursory “environmental scans,” now increasingly linked by some of them to psychological profiles of candidates to determine their “fit” with the institution. It makes one wonder if a Roosevelt or Churchill would ever make the short list of final candidates for the jobs in which most agreed they ultimately excelled. Boards employ these approaches to find the right candidate not to determine what an institution’s options might be after the candidate is selected.

The problem of how to establish an informed foundation for leadership while selecting a leader is compounded by boards whose members are uncritical and arrogant. When trustees who interview finalists portray themselves as chief custodians of the institutional flame, remembering a world that they wish existed in part by downplaying problems that they choose to ignore, smart candidates withdraw their names quickly from consideration. Candidates must beware of promises that will not be kept by trustees who will also not stay in the trench with them when the firing begins.

That having been said there is a need to fit the candidate’s skills to the job. Institutions taking a breath after periods of growth and change, for example, may require a “Mr. Chips’, an individual whose public proclamations articulate abstract principles about motherhood and apple pie that offend no one. Little gets done but then that is the point of the hire. One college president calls it the “Casper the Friendly Ghost” option.

If college and university search committees move in the opposite direction, then the choice of candidate is usually starkly different. In this example, the new president is a “change agent,” who serves for a limited duration and whose happiness and success will depend on whether trustees support the new president, publicly and privately. Woe to the president with a weak, ineffectual board whose members are led without discipline, commitment and direction, filling their time with petty intrigue, pop psychology board bonding exercises, and faddish business case studies masked as strategy.

How, then do American colleges and universities avoid the growing problem of presidential turnovers?

To begin, experienced, committed chairs must effectively manage their boards. No single voice should predominate among trustees, no matter how dogged, outspoken or rich the trustee might be. Presidential candidates have healthy egos, of course, but the best also have some skill set of experiences that prepare them to lead. Boards should embrace accomplished candidates and not treat outside experience as a threat to their own sense of self. Rather, an assured, respectful candidate can bring perspective, fresh eyes and keen insight to the job.

Above all boards whose members have fully vetted their candidates must ask: “Who will offer the best vision? “ They must understand that the most important job of any president is to provide direction that challenges who they are and wish to become. Leadership without vision is just management. The impact caused by the vacuum created by well-intentioned managers will take years to overcome as the competition continues to heart up for reputation and resources across American higher education.

Sadly, the board’s early actions during the search period can predict the problems ahead. How boards handle presidential transitions offers an important clue to what will occur. It is critical to undertake a comprehensive environmental scan of the strengths of the institution, market position, likely challenges, financing, program growth, assessment practices, and brand recognition that complements internal assessments. These data are different and more focused than the internal studies mandated by the regional accreditors.

The transition may be the one time when outside consultants serve their best and most noble purpose. Boards of trustees are uninformed volunteers with limited knowledge of how higher education works. How can they work with a new president if boards don’t know enough about the college or university, and its place within American higher education, to offer guidance? If their practice is roughly akin to government by anecdote, the strategic plan that emerges will be built at best on shifting sands.

A second clue is how they treat the relationship between the outgoing and incoming presidents. Outgoing presidents should embrace and contribute actively to a comprehensive institutional scan. Viewed parochially it’s the best way to preserve the record of their administration’s accomplishments. Incoming presidents should see the scan as a vehicle to understand what an interview could not teach.

It’s a little frightening to see how late in a presidential tenure most institutions draw upon data beyond their most recent accreditation review to build out a vision. Sadly, many in leadership never read past the results of the annual audit.

The “vision thing” doesn’t magically happen. It’s hard work. It begins with good data before the board even selects a new president.

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