June 18, 2019

Want to Lead a Private College? Many Are Looking for a President

Full list of current presidential searches 

News stories related to presidential searches  | Recent presidential appointments

As 2018 draws to a close, the job market is hot – and that’s not just for your average worker.  The same applies to college presidencies, especially in private nonprofit higher education.

As of December 2018, we had identified 42 presidential searches underway, and apparently not yet in their final stages.  The institutions range from household names like the University of Southern California to smaller, more specialized places like Lancaster (Pa.) Bible College.

Where the Openings Are

The current openings encompass most types of private colleges and universities, but almost three-quarters (30) are at baccalaureate and master’s institutions by Carnegie classification.  The others are split between six doctoral universities and four special-focus four-year institutions.  The one remaining outlier is Morris Brown College in Georgia, which is presently unaccredited.

As far as size, roughly two-thirds have an undergraduate enrollment of 2,000 students or fewer.  There are an additional 10 searches at institutions with 2,000 to 5,000 undergraduates, and just four at universities with over 5,000 undergrads.

Caution Signs

For possible candidates, these openings range from unqualified career opportunities, to manageable challenges, to (we suspect) unmitigated disasters.  The trick – for provosts, deans, vice presidents, and increasingly candidates from outside higher education – is to distinguish one group from another.

A place to start is by not looking ahead, but back. What has been the institution’s presidential history?  What happened to the previous president, and after how long?

The searches we’re tracking are a mixed bag.  However, almost half of the exiting presidents had a tenure of 10 years or more – a surprising number given that in 2016 the average president across all sectors had been in his/her current position 6.5 years (according to the American Council on Education’s 2017 American College Presidents Study).

Following a long-tenure president can be both positive and negative.  Certainly, long tenure indicates some level of institutional stability, possibly a simmering eagerness for change, and often a supportive board of trustees. However, it also can point toward institutional atrophy.  An administration can get lulled into a “way we’ve always done it” mentality, ignore danger signs, and fight change and innovation.  The board, likewise, may have been too hands-off, avoiding tough decisions and allowing an ineffective president to remain in place rather than confronting failed leadership.

Replacing a charismatic and beloved figure at the top, especially one with unusually long tenure, can also be problematic.  (There are, in the current group of exiting presidents, two who have served over 20 years, and four with over 30 years.)  More than anyone else, the president is the public face of the college or university. Putting on a new face can be tough.

The other extreme with different dangers are the places with too-frequent presidential turnover.  Especially troubling are those with short-term presidencies of four years or less.  There are six of these in the 41 current searches.  The successful candidate in one recently completed search will be that college’s fifth president in the past ten years.

Candidates would be wise to look at possible factors behind the predecessor’s departure,and just how the former president left.  In one case, it was unceremoniously, and without any public explanation by the board.

With unprecedented financial challenges, a number of smaller colleges (and even some name-brand larger institutions) are hoping to hire a miracle worker – but that fact might not be part of the presidential search prospectus.  In the ACE study cited above, only about two-thirds of the respondents felt they had been adequately informed of the institution’s current challenges and financial condition.

“Troubled Colleges”

Within colleges and universities, good information about bad news is often hard to find.  Many presidents see their role as the institution’s cheerleader and are not inclined to share negative developments widely.  The marketers in the admissions office likewise don’t want to poison the applicant pool with doubts.  As for the board of trustees, members may either be unaware of emerging problems within the administration, or simply prefer to not openly address difficult decisions.  This means the bad news often emerges through unofficial channels, such as the student newspaper, or through leaks of internal communications with faculty and staff.

Nearly one-third of the current presidential searches – 13 in all – are at institutions we’ve identified as “troubled colleges.”  This designation doesn’t mean those institutions won’t survive.  Some are well-established, well-endowed, and highly regarded.  Others are working through a relatively short-term crisis.  However, they all are among the colleges currently being challenged as they find their way in a changing higher education and societal landscape.  These are challenges the new president will inherit.

Our identification of troubled colleges comes, not from hard metrics, but from publicly available accounts (most often, news stories) of internal problems:  financial pressures, frequent presidential transitions, and student/faculty turmoil, for example.

All of this points toward plenty of opportunities right now for those climbing the higher education administration ladder.  But watch your step.

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All of the current presidential searches, with background links, are available on this page.

Roland King was for 15 years vice president for public affairs at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU), an association of more than 1,000 private nonprofit college presidents.  Since his retirement in 2013, he has continued to track leadership changes and challenges at private colleges and universities.  He can be reached at rolandkingdc@gmail.com.

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