Finding University Presidents: Can Search Committees Learn New Tricks?

It is hard enough for a college and university to find the right person to become its next president, even harder when there is dysfunctionality within the presidential search committee. And yet, quite often, search committees struggle to effectively and efficiently go about their business.

While these committees are usually well-intended and enthusiastic, they often lack the tools and methods to adequately assess individual candidates, much less the leadership needs of their institutions, writes John Thornburgh, in “Right Leader, Wrong Campus?” in this month’s University Business. “As such, decisions to move candidates forward—or not at all—are based more on intuitions and first impressions than thoughtful, objective, qualified assessments of leadership skills.”

John Thornburgh

There is also often a disconnect between the wishes of the board—the ultimately hiring authority—and the beliefs of the search committee as to which kind of person is right for the job. “Part of the problem here is that a growing number of boards are scrambling to get their own consensus on the university’s direction,” Thornburgh adds. Search committees are often “left to their own devices to take a best guess at the ideal leadership profile. At the end, search committees hand off several finalists to the board, and everyone crosses their fingers that the president selected is the right fit in all respects.”

Not surprisingly, Thornburgh says, mistakes are made and, as the article title implies, a great leader may wind up in the wrong presidential position. Thornburgh includes suggestions for how search committees can overcome these hurdles: primarily, that the search committee must actively engage the board in meaningful discussions about exactly what kind of leader is needed, and that formal assessment tools should be used to gauge whether candidate personalities, beliefs, and aspirations mirror those of the institution.

Nontraditional College Presidents

Lucy A. Leske also had a chance to weigh in on presidential searches recently—sharing her thoughts with The Chronicle of Higher Education on how universities are looking farther and wider for nontraditional presidential candidates. Leske speaks with the Chronicle’s Ruth Hammond about universities who are looking to deans, especially in the areas of science and technology, to assume their presidencies.

For more presidential search and search committee best practices, please see the Higher Education section in Witt/Kieffer’s Thought Leadership archive.

By Paul Thomas, Witt/Kieffer Senior Writer (@PaulWThomas)


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