Business Practices (Achieving Administrative Excellence)
The Value of Institutional Reviews
- By Dr. Scott D. Miller, Dr. Marylouise Fennell
- January 1st, 2017
A new president often arrives to find the line already
forming outside the office door —
so many demands, so many constituencies
seeking attention, so little time. Because
the honeymoon of a new presidency is ever
shorter, the first six months of an administration
must lay a firm foundation for success.
Often, we’ve seen missteps in this pivotal
stage prove fatal to a fledgling presidency,
even with well-qualified candidates.
How to make sense of competing priorities?
How to evaluate proffered advice?
In our more than 40 executive searches,
the single most effective tool for a smooth
presidential transition is the institutional review — preferably
conducted before the new CEO arrives on campus or within the
first six months. Not only will an outside review benefit a new
president, but it will also offer an objective overview of the institution
— warts and all — for boards.
“Increasingly, governing boards choose to commission institutional
reviews as a first step toward establishing or re-establishing
more legitimate premises for the president. Boards and search committees
often find these reviews indispensable during presidential
searches,” says Dr. James L. Fisher, author of Presidential Leadership:
Making a Difference (ACE, Washington, DC, 1996) and The
Entrepreneurial College President (ACE, Washington, DC, 2004).
Even a model presidential search will provide limited perspective
on an institution; an outside review can provide a reality
check. This is true even if the new CEO was an internal candidate.
When a former dean or vice president moves up, the campus is
often still viewed through the same lens. A good outside review
affords clearer focus.
Conducted by an external team over two to four months,
reviews should evaluate every dimension of the institution, with a
special emphasis on strategic positioning. A final report, based on
interviews and data, should include an institutional profile with
observations, analysis and recommendations for academic programs,
faculty, students, administration, finances and governance.
Conducting a review before a new president is named is especially
valuable. A review prepared prior to a search, Dr. Fisher
suggests, can result in changes in governance policies that will
make a presidency more attractive to candidates. For a newly
appointed president, the review can also:
- ensure a better informed, more enlightened board;
- establish a working agenda for the institution;
- provide an objective foundation for strategic planning;
- objectively evaluate the administration, quality of academic
programs, faculty and students; and
- gauge attitudes of key constituencies and donors.
Other sound reasons for an outside institutional review immediately
before or early in a new president’s tenure. It will:
- disclose potential minefields, enabling the new CEO to avoid
costly missteps at a time when the all-important first impressions
are being formed;
- provide a full and objective knowledge base from unbiased individuals
with no vested interest from which a new president may
then proceed to mold an institutional vision; and
- help the president handle sensitive issues which, if left undisclosed,
could derail a new presidency. Moreover, it will help
protect a new president from costly early mistakes.
The cost of a professional outside review varies according to the
complexity of the agenda and the size of the institution. We have
found, however, that it is money well spent as an investment in the
institution’s success. In addition to helping prevent costly mistakes
and premature turnover, a review will serve as a transformational
vehicle for the entire institution.
“A good review is usually far more valuable than even the most
thoughtful self-assessment,” Dr. Fisher says.
Strong beginnings start with sound planning at the outset, and
we urge boards and new presidents to begin this institutional review
process sooner, rather than later. Except for building a strong
cabinet, no other first steps will serve a new CEO so well throughout
his or her tenure.
This article originally appeared in the January 2017 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.