Business Practices (Achieving Administrative Excellence)
Starting on Sound Footing
- By Dr. Scott D. Miller, Dr. Marylouise Fennell
- July 1st, 2016
The first 120 days are often a “make or
break” time for a new college president.
It’s when the critical foundation for future
success is laid: town-gown relationships are
created, and action agendas are outlined. During
this “honeymoon” period — often before a
president’s official arrival on campus — new
CEOs are most vulnerable to missteps, many of
which can be prevented.
Because receptivity to innovation can be at
its highest at this time, the honeymoon period
can also be a favorable time for productive
team-building, enhancing campus image and
conducting a comprehensive review of the
Here are some time-tested recommendations that, in our experience,
have proven to be valuable in ensuring a smooth presidential
1. Hire a third party to negotiate the initial employment
agreement. A qualified third party can ensure overall integrity and
represent presidential needs which boards are often unprepared
to handle. In addition to negotiations about salary and benefits, a
potential stumbling block is the president’s residence: it is crucial
to his or her credibility that improvements to the president’s home,
including renovations and furnishings, are approved and completed
by the Board prior to the arrival of the new CEO.
2. Plan strategic communications with the new campus
while being respectful of the sitting president. We suggest a limited
number of personal visits, selected 30-minute “get acquainted”
calls and some written exchanges.
3. The Board and the new president should develop a transition
plan — including adequate time for the campus and community
to become acquainted with the new president, and to observe
his or her personal style, prior to the start date.
4. The new president should have a detailed discussion with
the independent auditors and an assessment of the audit by a
financial expert. Not being told the full story about finances before
their arrival is a common complaint of new presidents. Likewise,
we hear stories about presidents who fail because they either didn’t
understand the financial statements or couldn’t deal realistically
with financial issues. Bottom line: finance is absolutely critical,
and there should be no surprises or misconceptions on the part of
the new CEO.
5. The Board should authorize an independent, comprehensive
institutional review by a national, respected firm. A team
widely experienced in higher education and not having any present
association with the college should review its general condition
and provide a completely objective assessment to include: (a) Candidly
identifying and addressing issues affecting the campus and
serving to establish a tentative agenda for the immediate future;
(b) Helping the Board and the new president assess overall conditions;
(c) Providing the Board with a more accurate impression of
the college and exploring specific and realistic expectations; and
(d) Using a public report on the results as a vehicle for enhancing
the awareness and visibility of the college in the community,
region, state and beyond.
6. Once in office, the new president should actively participate
in national organizations that will provide a support
network. Among the liberal arts colleges, the Council of Independent
Colleges (CIC) offers the strongest support mechanism
for the new chief executive through its annual New Presidents
Workshop and the Presidents’ Institute. CIC also supports
regional Presidential Forums to assist new as well as experienced
presidents. Forums consist of groups of presidents from noncompetitive
institutions who meet periodically to talk and assist
with personal and professional issues. The American Association
of State Colleges and Universities provides similar services for
Although none of these recommendations will ensure a foolproof
presidential transition, they can help a new college president
to make the crucial leap from the honeymoon to a successful and
happy, long-term institutional marriage.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2016 issue of College Planning & Management.
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.