The average tenure of a college or university president has grown shorter over the years – but a recent surge of abrupt, short-term presidential transitions has got higher education pundits, prophets, and prognosticators sounding alarm bells and trying to figure out what’s going on (https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2019/06/26/recommendations-hiring-best-deans-provosts-and-presidents-opinion) .
I seriously doubt that any Board hires a new president hoping that s/he won’t work out, or that any new president takes the job believing that they will be heading out the exit before they’ve completely unpacked. But it’s happening – and maybe more frequently than ever before. What is to be done?
First, searches must be undertaken with the right kind of professional help and support. Some search firms and search professionals have better track records than others in finding good matches. Trustees need to do their research before selecting a firm and the professional within that firm who will handle their search. And then they need to listen attentively to the firm’s advice (without abdicating responsibility for the final decision). Going with the least expensive option, as one institution with a failed presidency did, is likely to be a false economy. (I can say this because I’m not in the executive search business, but I have used firms to fill top-level positions – and it matters who you use).
Even good hires can go struggle, though, and that’s where we come in. Often, to use a favorite movie quote, “what we have here is a failure to communicate.” Clarifying mutual expectations and optimizing communication among the new president, senior leadership, trustees, and other institutional stakeholders is a big part of what we do: https://www.torreyhelm.com/blank-4. And it can make the difference between a short, failed presidency and a long successful one. A sign in the Chaplain’s Office at Muhlenberg read “What people need is a good listening to.” Bill and I are good at listening and at hearing – what’s said and, sometimes, what’s not said. We keep confidences, we coach, we give feedback, and we suggest ways in which institutional stakeholders can work together more effectively. So, if you are a board chair with a new president, or a new president, reach out to us to see if we can improve the odds of a long, happy, and successful term.