View from the Board Chair: Partnerships Yield Positive Results

By John D. Lewis    //    Volume 24,  Number 4   //    July/August 2016

One of the most important responsibilities of college and university boards of trustees is the hiring of a president. Corporations, businesses, medical centers, and other similar types of organizations are accustomed to hiring individuals with industry-specific backgrounds and skill sets such as management, finance, or medicine. But the qualifications needed for a university president vary according to the institution’s type, size, location, mission, or current and impending challenges.

Moreover, when the institution is religiously affiliated, other criteria must be considered, such as, must the president be a member of a religious community? If the answer is “no,” then more attention must be given to each candidate’s relationship with the founding mission of the institution and its sponsors, or, in our case, their experiences in Catholic higher education.

Over the last six years, I have served as board chair of University of Detroit Mercy, a Catholic university that is affiliated with both the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) and the Religious Sisters of Mercy. All of the previous 24 presidents since 1877 had been a member of a religious congregation, but in my second year as chair, the board selected its first lay president, which was a major decision and departure. The choice had much to do with the finalists’ qualifications and what the trustees believed the university needed at that time and for the future. Our process was carefully developed in collaboration with our search consultant, but we made some minor adjustments, such as adding a few more key constituents, to ensure that we were not only listening to their concerns, but also being transparent. Additionally, involving lay and religious trustees, as well as faculty, staff, students, and alumni, contributed to a selection process in which stakeholders felt that their views were adequately represented. Those confidential and generally amicable dialogues, which were primarily conducted by a trustee who served as the search committee chairperson, were so productive that the search process concluded more than three months ahead of schedule.

The hiring of a president is the beginning of a partnership with the board of trustees and the university. Thus, it is extremely important that the board chair and trustees confirm and articulate their expectations of the president in the search profile developed to recruit candidates. Increasing enrollment, fundraising, and alumni giving, as well as developing a strategic plan, are fundamental goals for today’s college and university presidents. But our trustees emphatically stated that “… the new president will be expected to become a visible leader in Detroit, the metro region and the State of Michigan, as well as within the University community.” Additionally, the board desired the new president’s “assistance with their own leadership transition and with ongoing Board development,” reflective of the best practices of governance in higher education, such as changes in bylaws, committee structure, term limits, and more. An AGB board assessment was conducted for the first board retreat, and we’ve made significant progress on the previous items and many more.

Five and a half years later, the trustees’ selection of a president who could create external relationships with the city, while also addressing its core needs, has proven to be timely and beneficial. Detroit is experiencing a vibrant rebirth! University of Detroit Mercy’s faculty, senior leadership, staff, students, and current and former trustees are extraordinarily engaged in the renaissance of our city. As a 139-year-old community and civic anchor in the neighborhoods where our three campuses are located, we have developed significant partnerships with local and state governments, foundations, other nonprofits, universities, businesses, and neighborhood organizations, in part as a result of our board’s forward thinking as it searched for its next chief executive. And those successful partnerships have led to major grants for streetscape and neighborhood enhancements, a new economic development organization, increased service and internship opportunities for students, and a higher institutional and civic engagement profile. Of all of these partnerships, though, the one between the president and the board is the most important effort trustees can make!

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