Passing the Mantle

By Stephen G. Pelletier    //    Volume 26,  Number 5   //    November/December 2018

When Jeffrey B. Trammell was elected rector of the College of William & Mary, one of the first congratulatory calls he received was from James B. Murray Jr., who was among his predecessors. For an institution chartered in 1693, one might expect a past board chair to counsel his successor to be sure to uphold the college’s traditions. Murray, though, had his eye on the future. As Trammell recalls, Murray said, “Look, your first task as the new rector is to think about who your successor will be.”

The past chair wasn’t suggesting that Trammell usurp the Virginia governor’s authority to appoint board members at William & Mary. Rather, Murray was underscoring the belief that one measure of a board chair’s success is how effective that leader is in grooming a successor who fully understands the institution and the leadership role he or she will accede to, and “is fully invested in that work,” Trammell said.


Planning for leadership succession is routine in the business world. Private-sector boards know that such planning helps ensure a smooth transition when a CEO or other top leader leaves office. That, in turn, helps a successful business continue its productive trajectory. And while corporate directors know that unexpected blips can derail even the best leadership succession plan, they also recognize that not planning for the inevitable change at the top can cause organizations to lose control of how they execute strategy when a leader steps down.

Institutions of higher learning typically address issues of succession planning in two pivotal roles: board chair and president. The 2014 AGB Survey of Higher Education Governance found that the three most frequently cited activities independent boards undertake to develop future leaders are appointing potential leaders to committee chair positions (78 percent) or vice chair positions (53 percent) and encouraging potential board leaders to participate in workshops on higher education and governance (34 percent). The respective percentages for public institu-tions were 60 percent, 42 percent, and 41 percent. Nearly a third of independent institution boards (31 percent) pair potential board leaders with mentors, as do 18 percent of boards at public institutions.

“Organizations are not nearly as attentive to board chair succession as they need to be,” said AGB Consultant Artis Hamp-shire-Cowan, former senior vice president and secretary of the Howard University board of trustees. “They’ve just begun to really pay attention to the importance and the strategic nature of chairs.”

Tradition has often led many boards to assign chair roles to individuals based on “who is the most revered person on the board, who is the largest donor, who is the most influential,” Hampshire-Cowan said. Today, though, boards recognize that because “the higher ed space is so dynamic, you need your best minds and best leader-ship.” That reality is leading boards to look beyond “it’s her turn” thinking, she added. “The only way to keep board work dynamic is if you’re rotating people through leader-ship experiences.”


The board of trustees at Manhattanville College recently discovered that revamping the committee structure to deepen members’ expertise had the added benefit of strengthening the institution’s approach to board chair succession. During an exer-cise in strategic planning, the board rec-ognized that it would soon lose at least six experienced trustees to term limits. While an institution might have a strong board chair, “if you look around and your bench strength isn’t strong for the next three to five years—if you don’t have other people being groomed or educated to step up when they’re ready—you’ve got a problem when a chair’s term ends,” said Marcia Pearce DeWitt, chair of Manhattanville’s board.

With help from AGB consultants, DeWitt and her colleagues realized that the board’s bylaws already had a tool that might help ameliorate the leadership challenge. The rules allowed the appointment of one or more vice-chairs, but the position traditionally had been used as an honorary role for trustees who were transitioning off the board. Manhattanville decided to give its vice-chairs much more authority. The board appointed three vice-chairs and gave each one responsibility not only to partner with the chair, but also to collaborate with and coach newly appointed committee chairs.

Apart from significantly strengthening committee chairs’ training and development, the new vice-chair structure established a proving ground for potential future chairs of Manhattanville’s board. Vice-chairs prepare for and determine if they are ready to serve in the chair’s role while simultaneously helping Manhattanville’s trustees assess which up-and-coming leaders are best suited to leading the board.

Working as a vice-chair helps potential board chairs test their readiness for the top job in ways that go beyond a vague sense of “Oh, I’d like to do that,” DeWitt noted. The vice-chair role, she said, invests such individuals with “at least a year or two of practicing within our model of working collaboratively with other committee members, the executive committee, the president, and cabinet members.” Board chair succession continues to be formalized through the board’s nominating and governance committee while engaging members of the executive and strategic planning committees.


At every college and university, a successful transition from one president to another is at least as important as effective succession in board chairs. Statistics on presidential succession point to the inevitability of change in that essential role. The American College President Study 2017, published by the American Council on Education (ACE), reported that the average university presi-dent was 62 years old and more than half of presidents (54 percent) expected to leave their jobs in five years or less. The presidents surveyed had served as leaders for an average of 6.5 years, down from 8.5 years in 2006.

However, only about a quarter (24 percent) of presidents polled said their institution or system had a presidential succession plan. Presidents of doctorate-granting universities were the least likely to report having a succession plan (16 per-cent), followed by associate degree colleges (21 percent), master’s institutions (23 per-cent), baccalaureate colleges (24 percent), and special-focus institutions (37 percent). “With a substantial amount of turnover expected in the college presidency, institu-tions and systems will need to have presi-dential succession plans in place in order to ensure smooth leadership transitions,” the ACE report noted.

Leo Lambert, president emeritus of Elon University, played a pivotal role in orchestrating a smooth leadership transition at his institution. While negotiating his final five-year contract with Elon, Lambert intentionally urged the institution’s trustees to begin planning for the transition that would occur when Lambert stepped down as president at the end of that contract. “It is something the board and I worked very closely on over a period of years,” Lambert said. “It was a very thoughtful, orderly, and carefully considered process that worked out extremely well.”

Initially, the conversation about the transition was limited to members of the administrative personnel committee of Elon’s board. “They were rightfully concerned about bringing this to the full board prematurely, or too early,” Lambert said. “We didn’t do that until later on, but I don’t think this is a conversation you want to spring on a board a year before you are intending to depart. In the best-case scenario, you want to have a lot of thinking in place about how the presidential departure will sync with the university’s strategic plan.”

As Lambert concluded his presidency, the university had accomplished major goals in the strategic plan and was wrap-ping up the silent phase of a fundraising campaign. It was an appropriate juncture for a new leader to step in, develop a new strategic plan, and take the campaign public. With that in mind, Lambert said, Elon worked the presidential transition “into a kind of a natural place of pause in the university’s planning cycle.”

Lambert’s interest in a smooth transition also applied to practical matters. Knowing that the ideal time to make renovations to a presidential home is between administrations, Lambert and his family moved out of the official residence a year before he stepped down as president. That gave the university time to update the home before Elon’s new leader took office.

While not by design, Elon’s recent transition reflected another path in leadership succession—cultivating talent within an institution through mentoring. As president, Lambert created the Faculty Administrative Fellows program, through which promising young faculty members are cultivated for future leadership roles at the university. As it turned out, the person Elon tapped to succeed Lambert, Connie Ledoux Book, had spent some 15 years in faculty and senior staff roles at the university and had taken part in the program. Reflecting on Book’s earlier roles, Lambert said that while the university “didn’t groom Connie to be the next president of the university,” he recognized her skills and told her she was going to be a president one day. Book left Elon in 2015 to serve as provost and dean of the college at The Citadel, then was elected president of Elon in 2017.

Envisioning how Elon’s approach to an effective transition might translate at other institutions, Lambert said ideally there should be a period of several years of thoughtful consideration and open conversation between a leadership group of trustees and the president. Presidential transitions are times of anxiety and emotion for boards and institutions, Lambert noted, which makes steady-handed advanced planning all the more important. “Try not to [manage a transition] in crisis. Try to lay it out with as much lead time as you possibly can.”


Still another perspective on presidential succession comes from two presidents who learned much about running a university during respective stints as provost. John M. McCardell Jr., vice-chancellor of the University of the South—familiarly known as Sewanee—and president emeritus of Middlebury College, was ready when Middlebury suddenly lost its president and the board asked McCardell, then provost, to lead the college. Reflecting on that channel to presidential succession, McCardell explains that when an institution suddenly finds itself without a president, “boards need to have someone who can step in and make sure the institution operates until they can figure out what they want to do.” McCardell’s experience as Middlebury’s provost and vice president for academic affairs and in earlier administrative roles gave him the experience he needed in 1991 when “someone was needed to run the university, and I was it.” McCardell would head Middlebury until 2004, when he elected to return to the faculty. He was tapped to lead Sewanee in 2010.

“A board needs someone to whom they can turn if something unexpected happens [to the incumbent president],” McCardell said. “I’m not sure that needs to be a constant conversation, nor am I at all certain that’s a conversation that ought properly to go beyond the board, simply because of potential misunderstanding of communication.” Nonetheless, he noted, boards occasionally need to talk about who might be able to lead an institution should the president’s office unexpectedly have an opening. “That’s an important board discussion, and I think in those cases where the president is also a member of the board, the board [members] ought to feel comfortable taking the president into their confidence,” McCardell said.

John R. Swallow, president of Carthage College, also came to his position after serving as a chief operating officer at Sewanee, under McCardell’s leadership. Like McCardell, Swallow found that serving in an institution’s number-two slot prepared him well when an opportunity arose to accept a presidency. From an institutional perspective, he said having a seasoned expert such as a provost can be a critical cog in successful presidential succession. While it never became necessary for him to step into the top role at Sewanee, Swallow came to realize that it was important for him to be ready to do so if necessary.

“For the organization as a whole, if there are not people in place who could at least take over if something were to happen to somebody—if there is not someone who could at least keep things going—then that’s a real fragility,” he said.

Indeed, internal leadership development is essential for succession planning. In a 2010 AGB report, Succession Planning for the Higher Education Presidency, Rita Bornstein, president emerita of Rollins College, called on colleges and universities to develop systemic approaches for identifying internal talent. “To counter the tendency to seek external candidates, boards and presidents can educate their constituencies about the institutional benefits of developing and promoting those who have demonstrated leadership ability and already understand and respect the institutional culture,” she said.


AGB Consultant Theodore E. Long, president emeritus of Elizabethtown College, advises boards to create guidelines for succession planning at their institutions. Echoing Bornstein on the need for internal leadership development, he suggests looking inside to “groom and nourish leaders for the future.” Such coaching typically is done idio-syncratically, based on a sitting president’s interest in mentoring others, he noted.

“If boards were to set the expectation that they’re interested in possible internal candidates for their presidency and they believe it’s part of the vocation and leadership to nourish new leaders and prepare them in some way, that would go a long way toward creating a mechanism for finding future leaders,” Long said. “Boards could provide some energy and leadership that presidents would take to heart to make mentoring future leaders a normal part of the institution’s expectations.”

Long believes that such an approach would help boards keep leadership succession as a priority and would help them develop “a more nuanced concept of what leadership qualities they need.”
Further, he added, nurturing potential leaders internally can provide context that can help boards assess the qualifications of external candidates.

“A lot of how a board might choose to deal with succession planning [for presidents] has to do with whoever the incumbent is,” McCardell suggested. “We all know there are seasons in institutional lives just as there are seasons in presidential lives.” One consideration in succession planning, McCardell noted, is what season an individual is in and how well that dovetails with where the institution is and where it wants to go. “You might think differently about how the next president succeeds someone who’s in their mid-50s, and whether that person is planning to stay around or move on to something else,” he said.

For institutions that feel pressured to choose a new leader quickly, John Swallow urges them to take a step back and look at what they need. “I think conversations about succession are best when they derive from genuine long-term thinking about the institution, and not around specific short-term issues,” he said. “The question is not how different the new person is, but whether the new person fits the future of the institution. Sometimes it’s harder for people to see that, but it’s important to always keep the long goal in mind.”

To ensure that leadership transitions are successful, Hampshire-Cowan encourages institutions to discuss succession on a regular basis. “You have to make it a priority,” she said. “Make it a part of the board’s work, and make sure it is on the calendar.”

Hampshire-Cowan also counsels against having transitions with the chair and a new president at the same time. Too much institutional knowledge can be lost, particularly the relationships the university has nurtured with influential stakeholders. “I think it’s really important to have a seasoned chair overlap with a new president,” she said.

Another imperative, DeWitt added, is to define the college’s mission and where it is today. “How are you going to build? What kind of resources do you need to invest in the board? How do you use role training and generate vision to make sure any president has a strong team that is ready to take on the challenges that colleges face today?”

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