University Presidential Search: A Jesuit School Looks to a Lay Leader

Marquette University was prepared to set a historic precedent in its recent search for a new president – so much so that it even altered its bylaws beforehand in expectation it might hire lay leadership for the first time. For over a century, only Jesuit priests served in the role of university president at the Milwaukee-based Catholic school. Dennis Barden, a senior partner at Witt/Kieffer who led the recruitment, takes a close look at the process and how it culminated in the right choice – and a lay leader – in a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Dennis Barden

Dennis Barden

Early on, the university’s board decided the search would be as open and transparent as possible, with the stipulation that it would become private if it threatened the candidate pool (which is becoming increasingly common). Barden and Witt/Kieffer consulting colleagues Jean Dowdall and Ann Yates embarked on an extensive national search — with unprecedented participation from the community and committee members. Eleven hundred people in the university community gave their input to the process in live meetings and online responses. Barden says the Witt/Kieffer consultant team reached out directly to more than 1,200 people whose backgrounds seemed a possible match for Marquette and its needs, eventually conducting substantive conversations with almost 350 of them. At the same time, search-committee members flew around the country to meet individual candidates.


Marquette University

When the search required confidentiality in the late stages, the community had had its say, leaving final decisions up to the search committee and the school’s board of trustees. The time, effort, and trust dedicated to the recruitment from the board of trustees and community set this search apart and made for a highly informed and successful final choice.

Michael Lovell, who had been chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee across town, took the podium as president of Marquette this past summer. The committee and the community embraced the choice and viewed the inclusive search process as one that will benefit the school for years to come.

Learn more about Lovell’s recruitment in this video featuring the Marquette presidential search committee chair, John Ferraro.

By Brianna Scharfenberg, Communications Assistant

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