Presidential Searches: Boosting Your Odds for a Happy Ending

We’ve seen it too many times. A nation-wide presidential search begins and interviews are scheduled. Two or three candidates are brought to campus. Thousands of dollars are spent on advertising, fees, and travel expenses. Then, the grim news: the favored candidate has withdrawn (or turned down the position); the number-two candidate is no longer available (or perhaps viable). The search is re-advertised and starts anew.


Such a common scenario is disillusioning to faculty and staff who have stolen precious hours from their teaching, advising, research, and administrative duties to devote to the search and interview process. Worse, it is demoralizing to students and families for whom the presidency symbolizes the institution. Finally, it is confusing to alumni, other donors, and potential funding sources who equate institutional viability with presidential stability.


What has gone wrong, and how can colleges and universities ensure a happier search outcome?


First, the wording of the ad itself is important. It should clearly delineate what the committee is looking for, within legal limits. If an independent college intends to hire a president from its sponsoring denomination, for example, this should be clearly noted.


Second, selection of recruiting publications is critical. While traditional standbys such as the Chronicle of Higher Education remain a“must,” electronic advertisements are also becoming popular, as well as advertising in specialized publications.


Placement and wording of the ad are also paramount. Whether for reasons of confidentiality, ego, or some combination of both, CEOs and candidates for other hard-to-fill posts prefer not to send their CVs to HR offices. They expect to see and look for a P.O. box or recognized recruiter in the return address line. Incidentally, postings of ads in the executive section of the Chronicle of Higher Education are read by more position seekers compared to those who check the front portions of the advertising section.


Some other time-tested suggestions include the following.


Check references before bringing candidates to campus, but be sure to first get permission to call even listed references. This procedure saves valuable time later in the search process, after candidates have been to campus and may expect an offer.

In senior-level searches, referencing can tell a committee a good bit about a candidate before a face-to-face interview. Committees can glean valuable things about style, work ethic, and substance, as well as personal interests and family.

When the search reaches the finalist stage, the candidate should be advised that due diligence will be done. This includes“non-given” reference checking; civil court records; workers’ compensation records; criminal, credit, employment, and driving records; and degree confirmation.


Be honest and realistic about expectations. In all likelihood, the best candidates will already be CEOs elsewhere. And while they may welcome the challenge to “fix” a new institution, they may be reluctant to come if they sense “blood in the water.”


Provide candid information about the financial health of the institution. We both work with the Council of Independent College’s New Presidents Program. When we recently asked how many newly named CEOs believed they had received an accurate portrayal of the financial health of their new institution before accepting the position, 90 percent indicated they had not.


Supply candidates with external evaluations and reviews. These will include the most recent accreditation reports. Experienced candidates will want to know the good along with the bad.


Prior to the successful candidate’s arrival on campus, a new trend in presidential searches includes commissioning a team of experts to conduct an institutional review. A review will point out areas of concern and also highlight the strengths of the institution upon which a new CEO can build. It also provides an opportunity to review, update, and amend the institution’s by-laws.


Finally, be prepared to discuss with serious candidates the methodology and process for setting presidential evaluation goals to include who evaluates the president, how, and when. Also, they should be told how goals are set and ultimately reviewed and assessed.


By following these guidelines, chances for a successful and happy search can be realized.



Dr. Scott D. Miller is in his 10th year as president of Wesley College in Dover, DE. He is now in his 16th year as a college president. Dr. Marylouise Fennell, a former president of Carlow University in Pittsburgh, is senior counsel for the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC). She is also a partner in the Executive Search firm of Gallagher-Fennell Higher Education Services. Both serve as consultants to college presidents and boards.


About the Authors

Dr. Scott D. Miller is president of Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk/Virginia Beach, Virginia. He was previously president of Bethany College, Wesley College, and Lincoln Memorial University. He is chair of the Board of Directors of Academic Search, Inc. and serves as a consultant to college presidents and boards.

Dr. Marylouise Fennell, RSM, a former president of Carlow University, is senior counsel for the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) and principal of Hyatt Fennell, a higher education search firm.

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