Next in line for the college presidency

Five higher ed strategies for smooth campus transitions
By: | Issue: March, 2017
February 20, 2017

Talk about awkward. It was July 1, and the moving vans had just rolled onto campus with the new president and his family. There was just one problem: the outgoing CEO had not yet moved out of the presidential residence.

Although this really happened to one incoming president, who prefers not to reveal his name or institution, it’s obviously not the norm. Still, plenty can go wrong during a presidential turnover—imagine the new leader earning a faculty vote of no confidence early on, or not recognizing a million-dollar donor at a reception.

At the same time, the entire college community benefits when a new president gets off to a great start. With that goal in mind, here are five strategies for a smooth transition.

Advice for incoming presidents

Eric Spina, president of the University of Dayton in Ohio since 2016 and who previously spent 27 years at Syracuse University in New York (including nine as vice chancellor and provost), offers these tips for incoming presidents:

  • Always remember that this is not about you (whether incoming or outgoing). It is about the institution, and that should trump ego.

1. Establish a transition committee ASAP

Shortly after a president announces plans to leave and a search committee is established, experts recommend forming a team to pave the way for efficient change.

Typically created by the board chair and a key senior administrator, this group can guide the institution in celebrating an outgoing president—when the situation lends itself to that—and in assisting that person in the transition to a new role (whether on campus as part of the faculty or elsewhere).

These moves help ensure a successful transition for the incoming leader. The committee members can share insights on culture, traditions, community sensitivities, academic programs and public relations.

“An inclusive and representative transition team can be successful in launching a new presidency and providing wise counsel throughout the transition period, often well into the first year of a new president’s tenure,” says James Ferrare, managing principal of AGB Search, a Washington, D.C.-based higher ed executive search firm.

To keep itself on track, the transition team should develop a detailed playbook for both the search process and the transition, says Terry Franke, a Northfield, Illinois-based consultant specializing in presidential transitions and board governance.

Contents should include month-by-month lists of all the steps to take, including who is responsible and the timing for each action.

“This should be a living document. It should be very detailed for the first couple of months, but can be less detailed later, with specifics to be filled in as they emerge,” Franke says. Examples include developing initial goals, planning introductions to the local community and scheduling meetings with faculty governance committees.

An effective transition team can also serve as a sign to presidential candidates that the institution has outlined a comprehensive transition process.

“Astute candidates will want to know what you will do to make them successful,” Franke says. “They will want to know not only if you have formed a transition committee, but what you’ve done for the last president.”

Franke tells of a recently appointed president who, prior to accepting his current role, turned down two other offers even though he was the No. 1 candidate. The main reason? The institutions hadn’t given enough thought to transition planning and how to assure the incoming president’s success.

Advice for incoming presidents (cont.)

  • It is critically important to have a strong, respectful working relationship with your predecessor—and if it is not natural, then you both need to work on it for the very reason that the transition is about an institution that you both love.

2. Foster transparency

An open transition process and frequent communications with faculty, staff, students, parents, alumni and community leaders will help ease concerns of the various constituencies affected by change in leadership.

“Communication and transparency are the most important elements for a smooth transition, as there is a lot of anxiety associated with change,” says Thomas McGovern, who, since 2007, has been president of Fisher College in Boston.

“Key stakeholders want to know that a process is moving forward, the criteria and expectations for a new president, and the anticipated timeline for new leadership.”

He advises targeting communications to various campus groups and keeping the broader community informed. News releases, presentations to civic clubs and social media posts can all be effective.

Timing is as important as the message. Information should be issued promptly when a president announces departure plans, when a search committee forms, when finalists are chosen and at the new leader’s appointment.

As part of the communication process, fostering an openness to change may be an effective strategy. “Presidents coming in today are expected to make changes,” Franke says. “It’s important to prepare institutions for these changes.”

This should be done in advance, by sharing info such as the board’s vision for a new direction with faculty leadership or including such details in the initial posting of a presidential vacancy.

For many campuses, change also involves adjusting to a new type of leader.

“More presidents are now coming from non-traditional experiences rather than a linear academic career,” Franke says. At Lawrence University in Wisconsin, where Franke serves as a board member, four finalists for the most recent presidential vacancy came from backgrounds outside the usual academic path.

And the candidate eventually chosen held an MBA rather than a Ph.D.

Even when executives have traditional academic backgrounds, significant change may be likely. To prepare all constituencies for that eventuality, details such as board priorities for the future and external mandates that may be on the horizon should be shared openly.

He also advises publicizing past accomplishments of an incoming president, which may be revealing about that leader’s likely priorities in the new position.

“Planning well in advance and communicating such plans helps ensure change won’t be such a big shock and will make it more acceptable,” Franke says.

Advice for incoming presidents (cont.)

  • There is no substitute for getting to know the values and character of the institution before you consider making changes—even if changes are needed urgently. People value authenticity, and being authentic to the history and values of the new university is crucial.

3. Capitalize on the existing knowledge base.

When possible, arrange meetings or other forums for communication between the exiting president and the newly appointed one, assuming the incumbent is leaving on a positive note.

“If it’s a healthy situation such as voluntary departure due to retirement or new position, the outgoing president can be a fantastic resource,” says Jessica Kozloff, president of Academic Search in Washington, D.C. “If it isn’t, there are lots of awkward moments.”

In the best of circumstances, the outgoing president will invite the new leader to preliminary meetings with senior administrators, says Kozloff, also president emerita of Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania. “It’s nice to have a reception for the incoming president with the outgoing president and chair of the board being there.”

The outgoing president can be especially helpful in providing introductions to key constituents. “When I came into office, the president invited me into the last few board meetings so I could be introduced to the board members,” says Bryon Grigsby, president of Moravian College in Pennsylvania.

“The chairman of the board also held a party for key constituents—these were local donors, alumni and civic leaders. I could see where the outgoing president might be asked to provide introductions to key donors so that there is a seamless hand-off from one president to another.”

An incoming president must have frank discussions with the predecessor to see if any top personnel or their roles should be changed. The makeup of the leadership team surrounding the new president is crucial.

Staff changes during a transition should be made with this possibility in mind, providing balance between staff and faculty who represent continuity and those who bring fresh ideas and openness to change, says Barry Corey, president of Biola University in Southern California.

“You need to have people in leadership who have years of experience at the institution and who know the existing culture well,” he adds. “But it’s also helpful to have some leaders who are newer to the institution and who can be allies with the president in proposing necessary changes.”

New presidents should be engaging with senior staff, who can be valuable sources of information on everything from routine administrative practices to the rationale for past reorganizations.

At the same time, the exchange of such information can begin the process of building relationships as well as support for the new president’s initiatives.

“For effective change management to occur, you must first get the leaders and managers on board, because you need these leaders to ensure the desired practices are implemented,” says Scott Pulsipher, who came on board as president of Western Governors University in 2016.

“This increases ownership and accountability at all levels of the organization.”

While some aspects of managing an online-only institution vary, Pulsipher says there’s still a need for the incoming leader to “win the hearts and minds of the employees, students, partners and others.”

His regular, open communication has included traditional actions such as responding regularly to individual employee and student queries, as well as “roadshow” engagement with remote employees.

Advice for incoming presidents (cont.)

  • Consider not moving immediately from a senior-level position at one university (whether president or provost or other) to president at another. Having time to very carefully prepare—without the pressures of running an institution—and to study, and to get to know people before you begin is critical. And from a personal perspective, you need some quiet time for introspection and emotional preparation so that when you begin, you can give all you have.

4. Allow some honeymoon time.

New campus leaders must be prepared to tamper down unrealistic expectations, Kozloff says.

“There should be a realization by the appointee, the board, senior staff and everyone concerned that the new president needs a honeymoon period of learning the culture,” she says. “Expecting the new president to quickly make decisions, even in periods of crisis, is asking for failure.”

This should include taking plenty of time to listen to and get to know people who may have competing interests.

“Just learning ‘who to trust’ or ‘who has a certain agenda’ is daunting for a new president unless he or she is an internal appointment,” Kozloff says.

In 2013, Grigsby at Moravian asked that an online survey to be conducted two months before he arrived, in which the college’s stakeholders could identify challenges and missed opportunities. He used the results to construct the first components of a strategic plan for the school.

Since that time, he has continued to ask students, faculty and staff what they would do differently if they were the president.

Franke takes things a step further and suggests that boards, with the involvement of HR, use the early months of a new administration to address areas of possible improvement for the new leader.

That means having a well-thought-out personal development plan for the incoming president, he says. “No new president will bring all the skills you need. It’s important to help the newcomer, especially a first-time president, fill in any gaps.”

New leaders should be encouraged to attend summer academies—sponsored by Harvard or others—to focus on boosting key skills ranging from financial management to fundraising.

5. Cover the legal bases.

If there is pending litigation or a significant regulatory matter that won’t be resolved prior to the new president coming aboard, the new appointee should be filled in immediately, as well as provided an opportunity to provide input, says Scott Schneider, a partner with the national law firm Fisher Phillips.

“During any transition, it’s absolutely essential for the outgoing president and in-house counsel to brief the incoming president on all pending legal matters, potential legal matters and substantial risk management concerns.”

If a new president has limited experience with higher education, he advises providing info on the peculiarities of higher education law—including tenure, shared governance and the regulatory climate.

Different presidents often have different approaches to risk management, Schneider says. So care should be taken not to lock newcomers into a legal position with which they are uncomfortable. Transparency with all legal situations should be the rule.

Mark Rowh is a Virginia-based writer who frequently covers human resources topics.