View from the Board Chair: Averting a Leadership Crisis

By Sharon Kinsman Salmon    //    Volume 23,  Number 2   //    March/April 2015

Last February, while chair of the board at Le Moyne College, I received that phone call that every board chair dreads receiving. Our then-president, Fred Pestello, was under serious consideration for the presidency of another, yet unnamed, college. That board would meet to make its final decision within the next 10 days.

Within hours, I received a second phone call. Our then-provost, Linda LeMura, was one of three finalists for the presidency of La Salle University. Their board would also be making its decision within the next 10 days.

Naturally, I had all the intense conversations that any board chair would have with both individuals under the circumstances. I also immediately realized this situation was one that demanded the collective wisdom and commitment of the entire board—the chair could not deal with these unprecedented circumstances in a vacuum. To further complicate matters, the provost called the very next day saying that she had been offered the presidency at La Salle and they wanted her decision within days. Le Moyne was on the precipice of a leadership crisis.

Fortunately, the quick but well-thought-out action of a truly committed board averted this crisis. Our singular determination was to do what was in Le Moyne College’s best interest. The executive committee of the board met, thoroughly discussed the situation, and came away firmly supporting LeMura as the ideal candidate for Le Moyne’s presidency, while recognizing the importance of conducting a legitimate process. This support, without any guarantee, provided LeMura with the confidence to forgo La Salle’s offer. The full board convened the next day and endorsed this support, but discussed process at length. In the meantime, Fred Pestello was named president of Saint Louis University.

Le Moyne’s board was faced with an extraordinary set of facts and circumstances, and a near-impossible timeline. Both the board and LeMura clearly recognized the importance of fully and honestly working with all constituent groups; we needed to gather input, do due diligence, and answer questions. We had to quickly make the most important decision a board can make, but we were committed to having all constituent groups feel they had been listened to and respected.

A handful of trusted faculty members worked closely with a small working group of board members to determine how best to seek this input as we moved toward a formal vote on Le Moyne’s next president. Within two weeks, 15 trustees converged on campus from across the country for two full days of informationgatheringsessions with all campus constituencies, including private sessions with two trustees for any faculty member who wished to have a one-one-one conversation with board members.

The full board met April 3 to discuss all the feedback and hold its formal vote. We read a letter from the faculty senate into the meeting minutes expressing support for LeMura and recognizing the legitimacy of her presidency. She was approved unanimously.

I received those fateful phone calls on February 27 and held a press conference on April 4 introducing the first lay female president of a Jesuit college or university anywhere in the world. I would not wish this experience on any other chair, but thanks to a strong and committed board, the support of the Le Moyne and greater Syracuse communities, and the leadership of President Linda LeMura, Le Moyne is thriving. This past fall, we welcomed the largest freshman class in our history, we are receiving accolades on a variety of fronts, and the mood on the campus among all constituencies is positive and hopeful.

I would be remiss not to recognize the professionalism and mutual respect of the board chairs at the two other institutions. The three of us worked together to respect confidentiality and honor requests related to communication of the many issues surrounding this unusual situation, which came to a satisfactory resolution for all concerned.

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