Friday, September 22, 2006

Ask the Administrator: Hiring a President

An occasional correspondent writes:

If you were serving on a hiring committee for a new
college president, what sort of questions would be
good to ask? What sort of questions are probably a
waste of time?

It's a great topic, but it definitely requires context.

A few years ago I was taken aback when I heard a big muckety-muck say offhandedly, in an 'everybody knows' tone, that college presidents report to their development offices. At many campuses, that's pretty much true. As the funding challenges for many colleges have worsened, Presidents have become fundraisers-in-chief. The Chronicle, I think, did a piece a few years ago on the emerging model of a President who is almost entirely devoted to fundraising, and a Provost who actually runs the university.

It's frustrating, because the classic academic model of a college President as an academic leader has pretty much disappeared. Depending on the institution, a President may well be expected to be on campus only rarely and only for high ceremonies, delegating the actual running of the college to a Provost or VP's, so s/he can spend more time courting donors.

From what I've seen, this model hasn't yet become dominant at the community college level. Here, it's much more about establishing and maintaining relationships with local politicians and businesses. A President is the public face of the college, but s/he is also the person with private access to important outsiders (or, worse, without private access to them).

(When I worked at the for-profit college, the campus President was much more like a regional manager of a national corporation. External relationships mattered much less, and internal efficiencies and hitting profit targets absorbed most of the attention. In a revealing quirk of the organization, the Admissions office didn't report to the local campus; it reported to Home Office. The campus President, then, was effectively powerless to corral the Admissions reps when they over-promised. The college got a new President shortly before I left, and I actually felt bad for the new guy, since I don't think he knew about that quirk until after he had signed on.)

Internally, a President can certainly set priorities, and establish a cultural style that will eventually permeate much of the campus. Some Presidents like a top-down style; others prefer inclusionary processes, even at the cost of time. (Don't ask it that directly, though: I've never seen a candidate for anything admit to a preference for a top-down style.) Most Presidents will have a pet cause or pet program that will get special attention; this is normal, and to be expected. (If you can suss out ahead of time what a candidate's pet programs will be, you can use that as a basis for a decision.) In hard-to-define ways, a President's personality can make itself felt in the daily culture of a campus. If he rewards internal politicking, expect to see more of that; if his taste runs more to micromanaging or browbeating, expect to see more of that. My preference is for a more restrained style that puts emphasis on day-to-day consistency and setting the secure background conditions to allow others to excel, but that's me.

At public colleges particularly, a President is really the most important connection between the Board of Trustees, which makes the big financial decisions, and the college itself. If the Board of Trustees has a concern about a particular issue, and is considering counter-productive measures, it's really up to the President to convey the realities of the situation. If you have a candidate with Presidential experience elsewhere, I would absolutely ask about his/her experience with Boards of Trustees, and especially about times when s/he had to bring a difficult Board around on an important issue. It may sound like a picky detail, but nothing important happens without money, and Boards control the money. A President who can't deal with a Board will be an unsuccessful President.

Since so much of what Presidents do revolves around money, some colleges have made the leap to hire people directly from the business world. The theory is that someone who ran a huge organization and consistently turned a profit must know The Secret. I suppose it could work, but I'd bet against it. (The recent crash-and-burn of that banker President at CCAC, in Pittsburgh, didn't surprise me at all.) Other than the proprietaries, colleges and universities run by a different logic than do businesses, and that's not always bad. On the org chart, a tenured professor is many rungs below a President, but a President who thinks he can order around the tenured faculty is in very deep trouble. (Presidents who come from the military have even bigger shocks ahead of them.) Most colleges run on a combination of operating funds (tuition), philanthropy, public subsidy of various sorts (both direct and indirect, both federal and state), and investments. (I'm probably missing some biggies -- technology transfer revenues at research universities, say -- but you get the idea.) The core function – teaching – is typically done at a loss. Someone from the business world will be at a disadvantage in a situation in which revenues are only peripherally related to the product. Add to that a much-less-supine Board of Trustees than is typically found in corporations, plus cultural expectations of shared governance, plus a new generation of helicopter parents, plus constantly changing regulations and a litigious climate, and the Hard-Nosed Bottom Line Guy will look dangerously close to an idiot.

Finally, of course, there's the basic yet underrated category of ethics. A President who takes liberties sets a corrosive tone in ways you won't even realize until the next President comes along.

Positives? I'd look for academic experience, diplomatic skills, persistence, and humility. Negatives? Cult of CEO, no academic experience, poor people skills, hard-charging type.

Good luck with your search!

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.