The University Presidential Search Process:

Changing Higher Ed Podcast 059 with Host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and with Dana Cohick

Table of Contents

The University Presidential Search Process

In this podcast, we discuss how the pandemic influences university presidential search and the challenges colleges and universities face when dealing with leadership changes.

As higher education institutions face the multitude of challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic, many are also dealing with the challenges that go with a transition in leadership. The pandemic also has influenced these transitions, including the search process.

This podcast features Dana Cohick, who is the president of RPA Inc. Executive Search, a firm that specializes in higher education presidential searches.

COVID’s Influence on the Presidential Search Process

COVID has had a significant impact on the demands of higher education executives. In the past, higher education turned to shared governance to bring everyone to the table, giving everyone a voice and buy-in.

However, the pandemic changed the way that higher education responded since critical decisions needed to be made at a much more rapid rate. Starting in March, colleges and universities had to turn on a dime, something that they previously didn’t have to do. Students were sent home and institutions had to immediately shift classes to online education. This showed higher education leaders and faculty that the institution can turn on a dime and make quick decisions to meet both known and unknown challenges.

Now, as they move forward, higher education leaders face the question of how they will handle issues when the decision tempo changes from reactive to proactive. Can an institution move quickly while still embracing shared governance, and if so, how? That’s a big question—and one of the big transformations that are emerging because of the pandemic.

Traits of Higher Education Presidents

Several traits have always been important in presidencies, including creating a strategic vision and bringing people together around it while also having the passion and drive to be successful in the university president role. The pandemic has reinforced the need for these traits since the president’s job has expanded to 24/7. Presidents need to have a passion for the institution’s mission and student success.

The executive recruitment process can be used to identify candidates who not only have the requisite skills and experiences, but also the passion for what they do.  It is critical that the values of the institution and the successful candidate be in alignment, and as such, the executive recruitment must take into account the institution’s values and culture. However, those values are not always aligned with the advertised values that are listed on the institution’s website.

Finding a candidate who will agree to come to an institution and stay for a period of time requires good communication and transparency during the search process. To achieve transparency requires understanding what an institution is about. As the first part of its multi-step process, RPA Inc. goes to campuses and meets with multiple stakeholder groups, including the board of trustees, the senior cabinet, alumni, faculty, staff, and students. While differences will emerge, the firm looks for the trends that continuously are brought up through the day’s conversations, because these are the values that are being lived at the institution and should be used to recruit candidates.

The Evolving Process of Executive Search

Institutions and candidates should understand that an executive search is a journey, not a destination. The search process evolves during its span, which normally lasts about five months. The search committee may change directions as they see candidates who bring skills, experiences, and backgrounds that they hadn’t seen in the past.

Communication and transparency are part of a back-and-forth model that includes learning about both the institution and candidates in a holistic way. In its executive search, RPA Inc.’s model involves a process that uses multiple stages that include talking about what has driven a candidate and his/her values, and how the institution’s presidency would fit into that value structure. Is this the right opportunity?

It’s important to find a candidate who aligns with the institution’s mission and values, but who also understands how to take the institution to the next level. The selected candidate needs to be forward-thinking and forward-leaning, especially during this pandemic.

What Higher Education Institutions are Learning from the Pandemic

When institutions are able to begin to make decisions proactively, there’s going to be an opportunity for higher education to reflect on what was learned during the pandemic. This learning can help launch institutions forward as they transition out of this challenging time.

Contemplating the “new normal” is important. Some institutions will go back to their 2019 model and education. Others will continue with hybrid and on-line models. Students—especially non-traditional students–will continue to desire the latter formats because of ease of accessibility.

Differing Needs of Institution Presidents

Not every president is a change agent, nor does every institution need a change agent. Institution challenges and needs vary. What is important moving forward is for each higher education institution to identify how to become the best version of itself and how to best exemplify its mission to serve students. Every institution is unique, and a search needs to find the individual who fits the mold of where an institution can go and wants to go, but who also can push a little and challenge perceptions.

Historically, higher education administrators have come through the faculty. However, a change is emerging in that institutions increasingly are willing to see non-traditional candidates in the pool. Because of that, RPA Inc. writes its advertisement to reflect the qualities that the search committee believes it is seeking, but also to be open and inclusive because the pool needs to include individuals from enrollment management, finance, administration, and student affairs as well as candidates who come from industry.

Institutions are the ones who need to make the decision about which candidate is best to lead through the opportunities and challenges ahead.  In the process, the conversations about qualifications often shift so that candidates with broader backgrounds emerge. The selection committees often become really excited about what these candidates can bring to the table.

There’s an increasing openness to consider candidates who don’t have traditional backgrounds in the Academy. That includes individuals who come from different divisions in higher education or those who come from industry and business.

The challenge that candidates who have a background in business and industry face are being able to help a committee understand that the candidate understands the differences in how higher education moves as compared to industry/business. Coming into a college or university and treating it like a business is not going to work at many higher education institutions. However, if these candidates can offer an understanding of efficiencies while embracing a shared governance model, which sets higher education apart, they can be successful.

Composition of Search Committees

Search committees should be made up of a cross-section of higher education stakeholders. The greatest success that these committees can have is realizing that they are designed to bring different perspectives and opinions to the table. The greatest opportunities involve listening to individuals who are from other areas and hearing those different perspectives. The biggest challenge for search committees is when people come in with preconceived notions and aren’t open to listening and having their thoughts challenged and even changed.

To be successful, these committees need to embrace both the need to listen to each other but also to speak up. However, some searches—especially those that don’t have a consultant guiding them—can result in one or two or three voices become the primary voices coming out from the 16 members. The best search committees invite everyone’s opinion and every member feels comfortable offering an opinion. Open communications are meaningful so that members are talking with each other, instead of at each other.

Characteristics of a Successful Candidate Search

The biggest requirement / characteristic of a successful search is transparency – both being open and honest about the opportunities in front of the university, but also being open and honest about the challenges of the position and those that the institution is facing. Some committees are hesitant to share these challenges because they are afraid of scaring away candidates.

The reality is that candidates don’t come to higher education because of the paycheck. They come to higher education because they have a passion for students, a mission, and a desire to be part of solving problems. Institutions want candidates who are excited about being part of a conversation about challenges and moving past them.

Hiding the institution’s challenges is the best way to ensure an unsuccessful search. That’s not a way to get someone to stay, since they will show up at the institution and find out about challenges that no one ever mentioned. Therefore, it’s important during the search to systematically provide more and more information in a transparent way as the candidate pool narrows.

Three Recommendations for Candidate Search Committees and Teams

Cohick offered three recommendations for search committees and teams:

  1. Understanding that searches are journeys and not destinations. Members need to be open to learning and evolving their thoughts and opinions as the search unfolds.
  2. While it’s important to identify skills, qualifications, and experiences, also look for candidates who are passionate about the institution’s mission and student success. Seek candidates who align with that mission, but who also can help the institution move forward.
  3. Listen to one another and speak up. If you’ve been invited to be on a search committee and you end up sitting there quietly, you’re missing an opportunity to have a really big impact on an institution.

Three Recommendations for a Prospective President

Cohick also offered three recommendations for candidates:

  1. There will always be a need for candidates who can facilitate the creation of a vision and strategy and who can also bring people together around that vision and strategy. However, passion is critical right now in the presidency.
  2. Those approaching a presidency for the first time should talk to the recruitment firm about what the institution generally needs but also should try to gain an understanding of the complex nature of the presidency.
  3. By understanding the institution’s complexity and gauging it in relation to any experience gaps, it’s important to not shy away from these gaps. Instead, lean into them and talk about knowledge in areas where actual experience is lacking. This helps the committee understand that the candidate knows what the presidency is all about.

Bullet Points

  • The pandemic has caused higher education to move from its traditional slow and methodical change process grounded in the concept of getting everyone’s opinions through shared governance to a faster change process based on responding to external factors. The ability of colleges and universities to make this speedy change has surprised many in higher education and now offers the opportunity for a new paradigm that meshes both approaches to emerge. Current and future higher education leaders will be primary drivers in helping to create that new paradigm.
  • Great higher education presidents have many traits: the ability to create a strategic vision and engage people in that vision; a passion for education; and a drive to succeed in the higher education presidential role. The pandemic has expanded the presidency, reinforcing the need for those traits. In addition, the president needs to have a reenergized passion for the institution’s mission and student success in order to navigate these challenging times.
  • The values of a president and the institution need to be in alignment. Therefore, it’s important during a presidential search to identify the institution’s core values, which may differ from what is listed on its website.
  • A presidential search process, which evolves during its lifespan, requires transparency and communication to be successful. This allows both the institution and the candidate to determine if this relationship would be the right fit.
  • The successful candidate needs to be able to understand the institution’s vision but also have an idea of how to guide the college or university to evolve and grow. This is especially important as the world creates a “new normal” in the wake of the pandemic.
  • Historically, presidents have come from faculty. However, search committees are increasingly open to considering candidates who have backgrounds in various departments in higher education (such as finance or student enrollment) or who come from business and industry.
  • Candidates who come from business/industry need to able to articulate that they understand the difference between business/industry and higher education. They can talk about their ability to bring efficiency, but they need to understand why the shared governance model is such an important facet of higher education.
  • A search committee should be committed to openness and transparency. In addition, the members should be willing to voice their opinion and also to listen to other viewpoints. The challenge is that some search committees end up giving preference to the vocal voices of a small minority of members. This approach doesn’t ultimately create a successful search process.
  • Searches need to share both the institutional opportunities and challenges with candidates. This transparency creates a more realistic picture that can guide the selection process and ensure that the right candidate is hired.

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