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Paths to the Presidency

With shrinking candidate pools, retirements on the horizon, and new realities for institutions and their leaders, it's time to broaden higher education's idea of the best career path to get there.
University Business, Mar 2010

It wouldn't take much asking around to learn how one attains a goal of reaching the college presidency: teach, then get on the tenure track, become a department chair, and rise up the administrative ladder to chief academic officer. Those with the ambition (and energy left) to win an appointment are most likely to be white, age 60, and a married male, according to American Council on Education data on the typical president in 2006.

"Search committees come up with their laundry list of experiences [they're seeking in a president]," says Jacqueline King, assistant vice president of the Center for Policy Analysis at ACE. "The way you can check those boxes is by coming up the traditional academic career route."

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. Take these two leaders, who started their posts in July 2008:

  • Margaret L. Drugovich, president of Hartwick College (N.Y.), previously served as the vice president for strategic communications and university enrollment at Ohio Wesleyan University. She had also served as a health care policy researcher and held positions in institutional research, admissions, financial aid, and the president's office.
  • Holden Thorp, chancellor (and an alum) of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was a chemistry professor whose career led him to direct a planetarium, head a $17 million fundraising effort, chair a department, and serve as the university's College of Arts and Sciences dean before beginning his current post.

"You can look at all senior cabinet-level positions as leadership in training for the presidency," says Thomas Courtice, president of Academic Search, which has completed more than 650 presidential searches in higher ed.

It's all about being in a position that allows "a person to get full exposure to both the internal and external skills and ability that equip someone to be a president," adds John Thornburgh, senior vice president of Witt/Kieffer, which conducts about two dozen president or chancellor searches a year. Deans of prominent schools whose jobs include not just academic issues but also fundraising, brand management, and alumni relations are, in essence, serving as "mini presidents" already, he explains.

'I tell committees, "The person you're probably going to be interested in is ... going to have to be cajoled a little bit to even take a look." ' -Shelly Weiss Storbeck, Storbeck/Pimentel & Associates

Are higher ed outsiders being hired for the top job? Thornburgh says that is "very rare. It's frankly a factor of both the committees' wariness of people outside of the academy and the inability of these candidates to fully understand and appreciate the culture of a campus." Only about 13 percent of presidents' immediate prior positions were outside academe, according to the "The American College President," an ACE report released in 2007.

Presidential searches have always had high stakes, but today's campus search committees and search firms have a more challenging task than ever. To help meet the leadership needs of today and tomorrow, new views are emerging about what it means to be at the top and how to get there.

Search firm executives pin the average search length at four to eight months, during which there are multiple rounds of interviews and confidentiality is considered important, but not guaranteed. "There are some independent college searches that move right through to the final selection process, [with officials] coming up with some fairly creative ways to keep the identity of the candidates confidential," says Courtice, who served as an academic president himself for a total of 27 years. Yet, depending on the state and its political climate, "sunshine laws" may require candidates be revealed early on.

Not surprisingly, some hesitate to participate in the process. "People aren't going to apply if it's public knowledge and it's going to be creating a problem at their current institution," says King.

In general, "it takes a lot of work to get a highly successful person engaged in the process," says Shelly Weiss Storbeck, managing partner of Storbeck/Pimentel & Associates, a female/minority-owned search firm that focuses on higher ed. "I tell committees, 'The person you're probably going to be interested in is—going to have to be cajoled a little bit to even take a look.'"

Honing in on CAOs, a full 45 percent surveyed by ACE don't want to pursue a presidency. "They've seen the presidency up close and personal in their roles, so they have a pretty good sense of whether it's something they want to be doing," says King. The most popular reasons: unappealing nature of the work, ready to retire, the time demands aren't appealing, wanting to return to academic work, and too old to be considered. With all the steps traditionally needed to get to that place, "unless they want to be a president in their 70s, they're going to time out," she adds.

Storbeck notes the incredible amount of "energy, endurance, and capability to deal with a variety of constituencies" needed for the job. "They're well compensated certainly, but it's a lifestyle issue. If you're in [a fundraising] campaign mode, traveling 150 days a year, you're probably not a good advertisement for how to keep work/life balance."

As the Council of Independent Colleges analyzed ACE data to hone in on member institutions, an even grimmer picture has emerged: only about one-quarter of their CAOs were interested in the presidency. That surprised CIC staff. As President Richard Ekman notes, in smaller campus environments, the CAO sees the role of the presidency close up and that relationship tends to be collegial. A lot of CIC presidents came from the top ranks of advancement, student affairs, and finance, says Hal Hartley, CIC's senior vice president. With these colleges also very much focused on teaching and learning, it was additionally surprising that a lesser proportion of CIC presidents are former CAOs, compared to presidents overall.

If CAOs and other high-ranking administrators were asked in the past year or so for an explanation of their hesitation, the economy may well have had an impact on responses. "People are a little more risk adverse given the economy," says Courtice. "They may not be quite as quick to step away from places where they are doing meaningful work."

The big picture situation is a smaller candidate pool. "If a given college or university might have attracted 90 candidates 10 years ago, there are maybe 40 to 50 today," says Courtice.

"A lot of us are very concerned about the pipeline," sums up Storbeck. She and others anticipate a fairly significant number of retirements coming up. It's not just an age issue. "A lot of people got into this business to build something of substance," she says. "With the current state of affairs—budget downsizing, freezing of positions—there are some people who are simply not cut out for that activity every day of the week."

Search consultants encourage boards and committees to have an open mind. Courtice finds that while a diverse group of candidates may be initially considered, in the end, "their hearts tend to gravitate toward people who bring them a stronger, deeper, firmer understanding of the academy." Or as Thornburgh puts it, the tendency of committees is "to stay in their comfort zone."

He notes the importance of ensuring candidates are aligned with the institution's mission. A research-intensive institution would be "highly unlikely" to hire a president without "a very compelling portfolio of personal research and scholarship accomplishments." Yet a comprehensive undergraduate liberal arts college might be more open to leaders with other backgrounds in higher ed.

Large public university systems tend to be most open to leaders outside of the higher ed sector, Thornburgh has found. These jobs require "enormous political skills and abilities," he says, adding that former congressmen, senators, or governors could be well qualified for the college presidency.

"It's not a slam dunk even for the most promising internal candidates. ... You have the benefit that everybody knows you, and you have the curse that everybody knows you." -John Thornburgh, Witt/Kieffer

In Storbeck's experience, those highest on the U.S. News rankings ladder, such as the top 10 research universities or the top 10 liberal arts colleges, tend to have traditional search profiles. "It's often about how far they perceive they need to go to be what others would perceive to be a top-tier institution," she says of those who are more open to candidates of various backgrounds. The bios of past presidents at an institution can also be telling, she adds.

Her firm always questions just how nontraditional an institution might go. Would they consider a person from a foundation? The government?

Courtice has found that trustees are typically more open to considering nontraditional candidates, compared to faculty or staff on a committee. And he agrees there are certainly levels of nontraditional. He'll probe to learn what a client institution will appreciate, tolerate, and accept.

Just where are search firms and committees searching for star candidates? They'll start with people from similar institutions "who are at levels that typically prepare them for presidencies," says Thornburgh. "We make dozens of calls to encourage people to step forward as candidates, but more often than not to get nominations and suggestions."

An immediate interest in the job isn't always an indication of the best fit. In fact, Thornburgh will be more suspicious of candidates who say they've always aspired to the presidency, "compared to someone who has taken a hard look at the school [and found it] really resonates with what they need and what they'd like to do." He and other search consultants say those they contact want to do their own due diligence before moving forward.

Although no one seems to doubt there will always be qualified higher ed candidates to consider, those with a for-profit background can sometimes stand out. To Thornburgh, that would mean people who have been engaged in higher ed and who already know the institution intimately (e.g., alumni, former board members). "They've tested their ability to adapt and appreciate the institution," he says.

The new president may also already work there. "We're always looking for evidence of people who may be internal candidates," says Storbeck. However, as King notes, 80 percent of presidents have come from outside their institutions.

"In private industry, a CEO grooms his or her successor," says CIC's Hartley. "So there's a fairly seamless transition." When a college president leaves, the institution almost always starts from scratch, adds Ekman.

"Thoughtful succession planning…runs counter to the culture of shared governance," points out Thornburgh. Still, in a 2008 survey of college and university presidents by Witt/Kieffer, 64 percent of the 135 respondents reported that their institutions practice succession planning in some capacity at the president/chancellor level.

Thornburgh says, however, that "it's not a slam dunk even for the most promising internal candidates.…You have the benefit that everybody knows you, and you have the curse that everybody knows you." Internal candidates must get others to see them in a new role and project themselves as ready for new ideas and change, while at the same time not highlighting shortcomings of the current administration. "It's an interesting contradiction," he explains.

And not every institution is open to the idea. Courtice has worked with search committees that "go on record at the outset saying we must consider the external candidate pool exclusively," he says.

Higher ed associations and many individual institutions are establishing leadership development programs, in part to help ensure the candidate pool never dries up.

Academic Leadership for the 21st Century, launched in 2009 by CIC in partnership with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, is one such effort. The yearlong program prepares CAOs, who often lack experience in nonacademic aspects of campus leadership, to serve as effective presidents. It involves in-person seminars and structured individual activities, including conversations with leaders at a nearby campus, explains Hartley.

Ekman shares that a few participants in the current group were already at the point of applying for presidential roles and now they are approaching their searches differently. For example, some CAOs don't realize how a resume emphasizing curriculum development isn't highlighting "the things that matter the most as a candidate for president," he explains. Others who have had no experience in fundraising have asked their presidents to get some practice in that area (a welcome request, no doubt).

CIC has also begun developing a new leadership program aimed at academic administrators at levels below the CAO, as well as an analysis of ACE data about patterns that got people to the CAO position, Ekman reports. "We'll see what that suggests about going on to the presidency."

ACE efforts include the Spectrum Initiative, which aims to advance diversity in the college presidency. "We want to ensure the presidential search process is widely inclusive," says Diana Cordova, director of ACE's Center for Advancement of Racial and Ethnic Equity. As part of that initiative, her team will create and share some video interviews on the joys of the presidency. "We want to provide some role models—a diverse group of presidents doing a great job." When presidents saw the data on how many provosts aren't aspiring to become presidents, they said, "Maybe we're focusing too much on the negative, because I love what I do," explains Cordova.

Steps to success: The most recent graduates of Emory University's Academic Leadership Program, shown here with Provost Earl Lewis (middle row, second from right), have demonstrated their commitment to professional growth by completing the program.

A toolkit for presidents interested in setting up campus leadership development programs is also in the works. It will include examples of successful programs, including the Alabama Community College Leadership Academy, Penn State's Leadership Academy, and the Academic Leadership Program at Emory University in Atlanta.

Emory's effort, which began in fall 2008, was "triggered by the shifting landscape in higher education," says Claire Sterk, senior vice provost for academic affairs and the program's director. "There was a healthy level of sensitivity to always being prepared to ask the question, 'If a person were to leave, do we have a succession plan in place?'"

Some participants currently hold leadership positions and some are aspiring administrators. They "get a feel for how the culture of faculty life across the institution really differs," Sterk says. And through self-analysis, they reflect on their goals. Some are "very surprised to realize [a president] is something they know they could aspire to become," she says. Others who may have wanted to become upper administrators realize they would be happiest in academic affairs.

The program includes conversations about what a university should look for in a president. Examining some recently appointed presidents helps participants realize that being a strong academic is not necessarily the only way to a presidency, Sterk says.

Although Emory leaders hope its next generation of academic leaders will thrive within the institution, Sterk notes that it's fine if they decide to pursue opportunities elsewhere. "You want to develop people and then you want them to land in the best place possible."

Institutions must invest in leadership development, adds Cordova. "It's a good thing for the institution, and it's good for the sector as a whole."

As is the informal mentoring process. "It's really important for the younger generations to hear from a senior leader, 'Hey, you've got a lot of promise,'" and ask if they've considered a job in administration, King says. Women and people of color who have reached the top, in particular, tend to point to someone who encouraged them.

As higher education evolves, what it means to be a college president may well evolve, too. "Clearly the times are demanding people to think creatively and differently about pedagogy, curricula, delivery systems, and the entire process," says Courtice. He sees some institutions deciding they don't need to change the model of who a president is just yet, while others will realize they've got to change now.

Storbeck believes a close look at the expectations of presidents is in order. "The nature of the job, the 24/7 [aspect]—it's heavy lifting in every direction. … There must be ways to make the job a little bit more manageable for people so they're not feeling after two to three years that they've used up all the gas in the tank," she says.

Whether sabbaticals need to be built into the job or other adjustments to the nature of the presidency must take place, Storbeck notes the importance of quality leadership to higher ed as a whole. "If we're not doing everything we can to help mentor these people—we'll do a strong disservice to this industry."