Inaugural Transitions

By Kina Mallard, David W. Miles, and Larry Zimpleman    //    Volume 23,  Number 6   //    November/December 2015

Providing the Start That All Presidents and Institutions Deserve

By Kina Mallard

In any given year, almost 25 percent of all institutions will experience presidential transition activity. For colleges and universities, the average length of a presidency is estimated at less than 10 years, which means a change at the top executive level within the tenure of most faculty members. The transition from known to unknown can be exciting yet stressful in all stages, including when the current president retires or leaves the institution to take another position, the busy and ambiguous year or years of a presidential search, and the season of passing the baton from the sitting president to the newly named president.

It doesn’t matter whether the president is wildly popular, merely tolerated, or universally disliked; once the announcement is made that he or she is leaving, the campus community begins looking toward the future. The cynics will remain cynical, but for many, the anticipation of a new president brings positive energy and excited anticipation.

During this transition, the board of trustees sets the tone. The chairman often also chairs the search committee, and the entire board serves as a link between the outgoing and incoming presidents. Therefore, board members are the connection between the values and direction of the past and the hope and vision for the future. Board members can ensure a smooth transition by honoring the service of the sitting president, equipping the incoming president with the tools for a successful start, and instilling confidence for the future in faculty and staff.

My Own Case in Point

Having talked with many presidents over the last 10 years about their transitions, I realize my experience is atypical. Maybe it should be the norm. I was serving as executive vice president and provost at another university when I launched my search for a presidency. My president at the time was fully aware of my search and therefore had time to think about and prepare for a transition should I leave.

The day after my presidency was announced in February, he met with me and offered an administrative sabbatical beginning in March. Any president you talk with will admit how difficult it is to continue your work on the current campus when your mind and heart are increasingly focused on the new campus. My president, who had experienced this awkward period himself, suggested an approach that served the needs of his institution and those of my new position: I would be available to my current institution for key meetings if necessary and for consultation, but otherwise I would be preparing for my new role.

At the same time that my president offered me a sabbatical, the outgoing president at Reinhardt University informed the chairman of our board that he would like to retire earlier than July 1. As things worked out, I started attending events and was introduced on my new campus in March, began as president-elect on April 1, and began my presidency officially on May 16. The earlier start date provides many benefits for a new president, including the following:

  • Involvement in Major Decisions. Reinhardt’s retiring president, Thomas Isherwood, and the board agreed that I should be involved in every major decision that would affect my first year as president. This included approving the budget, hiring two vice presidents and three deans, and holding off on the signing of vendor contracts when possible. The university provided me an office down the hall from the president, and for the six weeks that I served as president-elect, the outgoing president often came to my office at the end of the day, sat down in the chair across from my desk, and said, “Here’s what happened today that you might need to know.” Not only did these casual conversations give me glimpses into the day-to-day work of the president, they allowed me to get to know the outgoing president personally and created a comfort level for future interactions when he returns to campus.
  • Uninterrupted Time to Meet Key Constituents and Learn the University. The gift of leaving my previous institution early and starting early at my current institution was priceless. With no operational responsibilities at either institution, I was available to meet with as many constituents as I could schedule. The vice president of advancement, who was also retiring, identified the top donors, key alumni, and community leaders and scheduled introductory meetings for me. The early start date also gave me time to learn about the campus. I remember one of my presidential colleagues remarking how he realized in his third year as president that he had never stepped inside one of the buildings. This is not surprising considering how busy the schedule becomes once the school year begins. Having the opportunity to set my own schedule allowed me to walk the campus, read about the university, reflect on what I was learning, and begin planning for the future.
  • Visibility on Campus. An early start date allowed me to attend and be introduced at awards ceremonies, academic lectures and scholarship presentations, and fine arts events. When the scheduled commencement speaker had to cancel, Reinhardt’s outgoing president invited me to step in and deliver the address, thereby providing the opportunity for the campus community, parents, and alumni to hear from their future president. Faculty and students left campus for summer break feeling they already knew me, and the exposure created a positive buzz on campus and in the community.

Select As Early a Start As Possible

Successful transitions begin with a smart plan. As soon as the sitting president announces retirement, the board should set an end date for the current president and a start date for the incoming president. The date may have to be adjusted, as search processes always move more slowly than one would prefer, but having a plan in place sets expectations for both the incoming and outgoing presidents.

A quick review of position announcements reveals most presidential appointments begin on the first day of July, usually the most lethargic month on a college campus. Perhaps the thinking is that a July start date will allow presidents to move in, find their way around town, and redecorate their offices before faculty and staff arrive in August. However, starting the presidency soon after spring graduation in May or June affords the opportunity for introductions to trustees, donors, and friends of the university, as well as conversations with faculty and staff before students return in the fall. Accelerating the process from a typical July 1 start date to immediately following graduation is worth the expense of buying out the contract of the outgoing president, if necessary.

Set Expectations for the Outgoing President

The outgoing president sits in a swiveling seat. On the one hand, he or she is looking toward retirement or the next opportunity. On the other hand, the president experiences a series of “lasts” and “finals” that can evoke a variety of emotions. Outgoing presidents experience sadness, a sense of loss, regret over unfinished initiatives, and anxiety about the next phase of their lives. The incoming president receives all the press, much of the attention, and perks the outgoing president did not receive. While being sensitive to the transition of someone whose role has been to take center stage, the board can encourage the outgoing president to share the stage when possible and plan events that include both presidents.

A 2011 article on presidential transitions that appeared in Inside Higher Ed suggested that the following questions can be helpful in negotiating ground rules for a positive transition:

  • Will the incoming president be making any campus visits before the official arrival? If so, what will those visits entail, and will the two leaders interact with each other during the visits?
  • If the new president needs information (e.g., board minutes, accreditation reports, cabinet reviews), how should the materials be requested?
  • How will the two leaders communicate with each other? How often? Will they meet face-to-face? Where and when?
  • Will there be interaction and communication with the new president and the board chair before the official transition? If so, how will the current president be informed about this?

Introduce the New President As Soon As Possible

A presidential transition is a busy time for the board of trustees. The search committee, which usually includes members of the executive committee of the board, has devoted time away from their families and their work to select the president, but the work is not yet complete. A transition team should be appointed and in place to assist the new president as soon as the announcement is made. Several articles in Trusteeship have discussed transition teams, including a 2009 piece that suggested the team represent a “wide range of skills, experiences, and campus and community networks” and be made up of the following:

  • One member of the board of trustees (vital to keeping board leadership informed about the progress of the transition and any concerns);
  • One member of the university’s sponsoring religious community (if applicable);
  • Two students;
  • Two alumni;
  • One member of the board of advisors (a community-based volunteer organization);
  • The administrative assistant to the president;
  • Four faculty members (including two academic deans); and
  • Five administrators (including three vice presidents).

My own transition team—primarily the vice president of advancement and the executive administrative assistant to the president—was devoted to scheduling as many meetings as possible. From the middle of February, when I was announced as the new president, to the traditional start date of July 1, I participated in over 300 meetings and introductory phone calls, spoke at a denominational conference to over 600 lay leaders, and represented the university at the annual National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) Appalachian Athletic Association President’s Conference. The whirlwind of activity, without day-to-day operational responsibilities, gave me the contacts and knowledge I needed to begin leading the university with confidence by the time the students arrived in August.

The work has become increasingly complex for the university president, once seen as an intellectual scholar who had the time to leisurely dine with students. A president today often finds him- or herself trapped among several forces:

  • The desires of the governing board for quick change and growing endowments;
  • A committed faculty who rarely feels supported or compensated fairly;
  • An increasingly competitive marketplace where it is difficult to find a niche; and
  • Pressures from accrediting boards, the federal government, and parents calling for more data and metrics of success.

It is difficult to find a president who can navigate the complexities with relationship skill and emotional intelligence. New presidents need and deserve a strong start, backed by a board of trustees and a transition team who understand their role in bridging the gap between old and new administrations. Joint efforts will set the stage for the new president to lead the institution into the future.

Running the Race of a Presidential Search

By David W. Miles and Larry Zimpleman

Most board members will experience a presidential search and transition during their service. And since recruiting, appointing, supporting, and evaluating a president is, after all, a board’s most important responsibility, they want to be sure that they’re doing it right.

Drake University’s board recently had an opportunity to fulfill this duty with the retirement of David Maxwell after 15 years. Last year, he approached the board chair and said he knew he was at an ideal transition point professionally; in addition, he and his wife knew the time was right personally for his retirement. The institution, too, was at an ideal place for a transition, as our comprehensive campaign goal was well in sight and our strategic plan was at the midway point. The decision was shared with the board in January and announced to the campus in March.

The board viewed the transition as an opportunity to reflect upon the trajectory of the institution and to determine a search process that met the needs of the university, the board, and the campus community. Having successfully completed a national search for our 13th president and finding an ideal fit in Earl “Marty” Martin, we are pleased to share insights for other boards.

Choose Your Committee Carefully

Board chairs should accept their positions knowing that a presidential search and transition could occur during their tenure. For this reason, a board chair should always have possible search committee chairs and members in mind. For the Drake search, board members interested in serving were asked to self-nominate, as the board chair recognized that appointing members to these posts was unrealistic—searches take a lot of time, energy, and interest, so candidates must weigh their ability and capacity to meet these needs. We defined roles as follows:

  • Committee chair: A search chair must have the respect of the board and campus community. Responsibilities include calling and running committee meetings and providing timely status reports to keep the board, the candidates, the institutional community, and the news media informed of the search’s progress.
  • Board chair: The board chair must work closely with the search chair to present a cohesive front to the campus and the public by speaking for the full board. The board must trust in the committee chair and the process and allow them to proceed as planned.
  • Board members on the search committee: These members of the search committee bring a variety of experiences, relationships with the institution, backgrounds, and areas of expertise to the decision-making process.

Include the Outgoing President

Determining a role for a sitting president can be tricky if the president isn’t leaving on the best of terms. We were lucky not to find ourselves in that situation and to have a retiring president the board respected and trusted.

The committee and search chair asked then-President Maxwell to provide feedback on the position description and announcement, serve as a resource to the final candidates, and provide his insights on the candidates. His role was not interviewer or assessor, but rather responder to questions. After all, who knows better the history and demands of the position?

“The board was incredibly generous in including me in the process, and I felt like my inclusion wasn’t an afterthought,” said Maxwell. “There was nothing in the bylaws that said they needed to include the standing president, but I had a sense from the start that there was tremendous respect for me, the role of president, and the institution. I knew the job better than any of the board members, and I felt my insights on the current and future position were valued.”

Maxwell’s role was steps removed from the search, which meant, as he put it, he was “able to focus on closing our comprehensive fundraising campaign and leading the institution day-to-day, which reassured the board that they could focus on the search.”

Run a Relay, Not a Marathon

We approached our collective work as if it were a relay race—the faculty, search committee, and board each had to run legs of the race in succession and ensure that the handoff of the baton would be seamless. But in our case, rather than just allowing the previous runners to fall back, we insisted that each group build off the momentum of those who came before them and then include them in the next lap. And that approach paid off.

Before we could begin our race, we had to define what we needed to accomplish and how the race would be run. In Drake’s case, the university’s charter gave some specificity about how the search would proceed; highlighted ways a charter-mandated campus committee representing students, faculty, and staff would be formed; and offered guidance for how feedback from the community would be included in the process.

Even though the two committees were separately chartered and defined, the search committee wanted collaboration between them so as to make a better decision with the campus committee’s insights. Some board members were concerned that a two-committee process might intrude on board prerogative, but we were clear at all times about who held final decision-making responsibilities.

Very early on in the process, the search chair and search consultant met with the faculty, staff, and student representatives on the campus committee to discuss their roles and to lay the groundwork for the search. We made the case for a closed, confidential search—confidentiality was necessary to attract the caliber of candidate that would be a fit for Drake long term. The campus committee trusted our guidance and agreed.

“In our governing documents, the role of the faculty in a search is pretty clear—we have a role in vetting candidates, but not in selecting them,” noted Keith Summerville, interim dean, Levitt Distinguished Professor of Environmental Science, and member of the campus committee. “The selection decision is delineated in the university’s charter as being the board’s role. However, Drake culturally had historically defined the faculty role as much more consultative. While national processes had changed in the 16 years since President Maxwell was named, the cultural expectations on campus hadn’t.”

The campus committee had responsibility for the first leg of the race. It was tasked with placing candidate applications into groupings that reflected its priorities and preferences for the next president of Drake. There was healthy dialogue on the categorizations when the campus committee presented its groupings to the search committee, and once that conversation was completed, the baton was passed.

After the campus committee gave the search committee its priority order for the candidates, we agreed to keep members current on how the search was progressing with an understanding that it had to be kept completely confidential. Every member of the campus committee agreed, and confidentiality was maintained throughout the search.

The search committee narrowed the group of preferred candidates into a list of finalists. Those finalists were also introduced to the campus committee and to Maxwell for their impressions. The search committee considered their input and then moved forward with its finalist for the board’s consideration. Once again, the baton was passed.

After considering the rationale advanced by the search committee, the board approved the selection of Marty Martin, the result of a deliberate and thoughtful process that benefitted from a diverse and impressive group of candidates. We had asked for a pool that included nontraditional candidates and selected someone with both a traditional and nontraditional academic pedigree.

“We each had to give a little to get a little throughout the progress,” noted Summerville. “The campus committee agreed with the closed-search approach, and the search committee let us into their deliberations in a way that they by no means had to.”

Maxwell concurred. “The board and search committee deserve credit for continuing to include the faculty and campus committee even after the list of finalists was shared with the board. That was a keenly wise decision that increased the campus investment in President Martin upon his arrival.”

Validate Participants

The search committee prioritized communication, which meant sharing updates both as we hit milestones and between milestones to reassure the community that we were still hard at work. The campus committee held responsibility for communicating its work to colleagues. Both committees regularly thanked the campus community for entrusting us with such an important task and reminded the community of how and when its feedback would be solicited and used.

The way we communicated ranged from the search website and email updates to inperson meetings. We promised the campus community to do our best not to blindside them with news and pledged they would hear updates from us first. Much to the Des Moines Register’s chagrin, we held to that promise.

The search committee also sought to express appreciation to the members of the campus committee for their many hours of work and the political capital they had expended on behalf of the search process with their peers.

“It’s tempting for searches to include limited feedback channels and have the number of decision makers get smaller as the importance of the search rises,” said Summerville. “All of us on the campus committee were, in essence, working with our bosses, but the search committee and board made us all feel like we were equal participants, even if we weren’t part of the final decision.”

Court Your Candidates

It’s important to note that the candidates you are interested in may be participating in other searches, that those other searches may be at different points in their process than yours, and that you may lose a candidate or two. There also is a chance that someone you are interested in may drop out of the search after stringing you along. It’s okay if that happens—you’ll still find excellent candidates.

And when you find those candidates, be sure to help them see how they would fit into your campus culture. “When I visited campus, I could see myself as part of the community and envisioned calling Des Moines my home,” said Martin. “It was easy for me to continue in the search, because it felt like the right thing to do.”

Remember that during the search process, your candidates are vetting your institution as aggressively as you are vetting them. Do what you can to assist in their process so that you put your best foot forward.

“My experience as a candidate has influenced how I encourage the campus to conduct searches today. All applicants should feel welcome on campus and want to be a part of the university even if we aren’t yet sure we want to hire them,” said Martin. “But we must be polite in our feedback, both when we decide to go with another candidate and especially when we are taking the conversations to a higher level of interest.”

Ensure your search consultant is timely and comprehensive with communications to candidates, especially early in the process. Remember that applicants are making themselves vulnerable while participating in your search and deserve communications that are transparent but also kind.

Be Prepared for Bumps

No process is perfect, and there are some things we could have done differently or better. We didn’t anticipate the bumps we did hit, but the board had built enormous goodwill in previous collaborations and drew upon those reserves as needed.

As Summerville observed, “Our campus comprises those who have been here 30 or more years and others with 10 or fewer years of experience under their belts, with a sprinkling of colleagues in the middle. It is important to remember that some members of our campus community have only known one leader, one president, over the course of their careers. An anxiety of the unknown, related to either the leadership transition or an unfamiliar process, is common.”

During the search process, the campus committee and president’s cabinet brought the campus’ points of anxiety to us and we determined which group would be the preferred responder and what mode would resonate best. Pinch points included concerns about the closed-search process, questions about the timeline, worries about a failed search, desires for greater feedback, and, from the media, interest in interviewing our finalists, which we did not allow because it was a closed search.

To prevent obstacles once the president-elect was named, we partnered with the campus committee, the board, and then-President Maxwell to integrate Marty Martin into the community months before he started his job. David Maxwell generously offered to share the spotlight with his successor for the remainder of his time on campus so that we could share Marty’s credentials and his personality in advance of his start date. This helped the campus community get to know the new president and feel a part of the transition.

The feedback we received once the campus community met President-Elect Martin underscored that community members felt they had been heard, their input had been incorporated into the position description, and the successful candidate mirrored what they had asked for when we collectively envisioned our new president. President Martin is off to a tremendous start with the board, university, alumni, and community, so we consider this a race well run.

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