Forum: The Responsibility of Choosing a College President in Times of Crisis

By Brian C. Mitchell    //    Volume 28,  Number 4   //    July/August 2020

Approximately 40 million Americans have filed for unemployment since the novel coronavirus pandemic began. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate could have been as high as 19.2 percent in April and 16.1 per-cent in May. Historically, unemployment reached a height of 24.9 percent in 1933. Only twice, during the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Long Depression of the 1870s, have colleges been forced to respond to such a severe economic downturn. We have now reached a third inflection point that calls into open question how America’s colleges and universities operate.

The 2020–2021 academic year will be extraordinarily difficult for American higher education. The pressure on the residential liberal arts college will put many of them in deep distress from which a significant number of them will not recover. Further, the American Council on Education estimates that enrollment for the next academic year will drop by 15 percent, including a projected decline of 25 percent for international students.¹ Recent surveys also indicate that as many as 20 percent of students at four-year colleges may not enter or return to class in the fall.

A one-year downturn plays out over four years in higher education. A two-year downturn playing out over six or seven years seems likely. At this point, the birth rate decline caused by the Great Recession in 2008 will hit enrollments with a 15 percent decrease therefore likely to persist throughout the decade.

University and college boards, especially those that are approaching an existential crisis, should ask whether they have the right leadership to weather this third inflection point. Does their current leadership have the right mix of strategy, operational knowledge, and financial expertise to shepherd the college or university through this crisis? If the answer is no (or their president has recently resigned or retired), they should be taking immediate action to secure the leadership that can save them.

A typical presidential search is a six- to nine-month process, usually beginning in late spring or early summer. It is a kind of protocol-driven academic ritual. The new president is typically announced early in the following year and will begin in July, roughly 12 to 15 months after the search started. In the meantime, the board of trustees usually names an acting or interim president. While they have the authority of the presidency, the job basically requires that these interims safeguard the status quo and fulfill the ceremonial obligations of the office.

This process is unlike a chief executive search in any other industry. Higher education’s “exceptionalism” assumes that a consultative process that includes trustees, faculty, staff, students, alumni, and the community takes longer. Further, the July 1 start date also begins the new academic year.

Traditions are important, especially in higher education. While this elongated process might be defended in a more normal economic environment, it seems reckless and dangerous in the current situation—a global pandemic rapidly causing an economic depression. As the crisis deepens, trustees must recognize that their fiduciary responsibilities require them to question and take responsibility for how presidential searches are conducted in a pandemic. Given the crisis, the selection must be based on the cold, hard facts that depict the level of stress that exists with an understanding of how the candidate must demonstrate strategy and vision to adapt to the new global environment buffeting American higher education.

It’s also time to seize the practical, linking technology to a clear sense of the type of leadership needed in a crisis that will persist throughout the decade. It is possible to organize a broad, consultative process on a much shorter time frame. To start, search committees can use technologies such as Zoom at a minimum for first-round interviews. This might make their decision more balanced on merit rather than swayed by a single performance during a staged, orchestrated, and often artificial airport interview. If travel restrictions per-sist, the search committee can use the same technique to conduct additional rounds of interviews, delegating the final decision on a recommendation to a smaller group led by the committee chair. When doing so they can still broadly consult with key stakeholders transparently throughout this process. The board can also meet virtually to debate and bless the decisions.

In the new reality forced by the pan-demic, the board must bring the new president on to the campus without delay, independent of the academic calendar and traditions. Every college will be operating at a deficit, likely for years to come. Their boards must educate themselves quickly, lean into the hard decisions ahead, and craft a climate for the success of the new president. It’s not just a question of modernizing the presidential selection process. Who and how they choose may be the most important decisions that boards can make in the near future. Time, tradition, and precedent are no longer on their side.

Higher education must quickly adapt to the remarkably different environment caused by the pandemic. One immediate change must be in how they handle the elongated presidential search process. This tradition-driven, consensus-building search no longer serves colleges and universities that cry out for new vision and strategy to adapt and survive as their financial and enrollment models collapse around them. Searches must be shortened dramatically, better employ basic technology, and shake off the culturally driven protocol that values process over protocol.

Brian C. Mitchell, PhD, is the former president of Bucknell University and Washington & Jefferson College. He coauthored the book, How to Run a College (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018) and will co-author a new book, Leading A College (Johns Hopkins University Press, Forthcoming, 2021). 

Endnote

1 The statistic can be found online at https://www.acenet.edu/News-Room/Pages/Higher-Education-Communi-ty-Requests-%2447-Billion-for-Students-and-Institu-tions-Proposes-Tax-Changes.asp.

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