Business Practices (Achieving Administrative Excellence)
The Successful Presidential Search
- By Dr. Scott D. Miller, Dr. Marylouise Fennell
- December 1st, 2016
A nationwide presidential
search begins. Thousands of dollars
are soon to be spent on advertising,
consulting fees and travel expenses. Two or
three strong candidates arrive for campus interviews.
Hopes are high for a successful outcome.
Then comes the grim, surprising news: the
favored candidate has withdrawn, or turned
down the offer. The number-two candidate is
no longer available (or perhaps not viable). The
search starts anew, no doubt disillusioning
faculty and staff who have sacrificed precious
hours from their teaching, advising, research
and administrative duties for the search
process. And it is confusing to alumni, donors
and other stakeholders who equate institutional stability with
How can colleges and universities ensure a happier search
Advice for a Positive Outcome
First, we recommend hiring an executive search firm for any
presidential or vice presidential search. Second, the search prospectus
and advertisements are critical. Both should clearly define what
the committee is looking for, within legal limits. If a church-related
college intends to hire a president from its sponsoring denomination,
for example, this should be clearly noted. Third, advertising
should reach target audiences. While traditional publications
remain a “must,” electronic advertisements are also becoming
popular, as well as advertising in specialized publications. Email
messages to potential candidates and requests for nominations from
higher education leaders can produce good leads, too.
Placement and wording of the ad are paramount. CEOs and
candidates for senior posts prefer not to send their CVs to HR offices.
They prefer a box or recognized recruiter in the return address
line. Incidentally, postings in the executive section of specialized
publications are read by more potential applicants than are those
in the front portions of the employment section.
Some other time-tested suggestions include the following:
• Check references before bringing candidates to campus, but
be sure to secure 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.
Referencing can tell a committee a good bit about a candidate
before a face-to-face interview, such as work style and ethic,
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 and workers’ compensation
records; criminal, credit and employment checks;
driving records; and degree verification.
• Be honest and realistic about expectations.
The best candidates
are usually CEOs elsewhere. While they may welcome the
challenge to “fix” a new institution, they may be reluctant to
come if they sense existing trouble.
• Provide candid information about the financial health of the
We both have worked with new presidents through the
Council of Independent College’s New Presidents Program. When
we 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 and
audited financial statements. Experienced candidates will want
to know the good along with the bad.
• Commission a team of experts to conduct an institutional
review — before the new president arrives.
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
• Finally, be prepared to discuss with serious candidates the
methodology and process for setting presidential evaluation
Who will evaluate the president, how and when? Explain
how goals are set, reviewed and assessed.
Careful planning with these guidelines can improve chances
for a successful search. The alternative can be costly.
This article originally appeared in the December 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.