Insights into Recruiting a College President


Witt/Kieffer senior partner Dennis Barden recently chatted – via the Google Hangouts video service – with Higher Ed Live’s Rob Zinkan about the recruiting of college presidents in this time of great challenges within higher education. Having participated in dozens of presidential searches in recent years, Barden had plenty of insight to share over the course of the 45-minute interview.

Today’s college presidency is such a tough job, Barden notes, that it’s almost “irrational” that individuals would pursue it. Those top candidates who do pursue presidencies, he adds, want assurances that their candidacy will be handled confidentially (to the degree possible) and professionally throughout.

Enjoy the video, and below please find a sampling of what Barden had to say within.

The role of the university president: “The job has become increasingly complex, but it has also changed quite radically from back in the day when I first found myself in higher education. It’s become far more about running a coherent business enterprise. It has become far more about the revenue side of the ledger than the expense side of the ledger. That has had a significant impact on the sorts of people and particularly the sorts of competencies that those people must have who pursue these presidencies.”

Hiring leaders from outside of higher education: “I actually think we will not see a tremendous expansion of candidates from completely outside higher education becoming college and university presidents . . . This is not a business enterprise in the way people think of a business . . . What I think we are going to see is different people from within higher education being deemed to be qualified for these presidencies.”

The changing focus of the president: “The presidency has become increasingly externally focused. It’s interesting that even today, after ten or fifteen years of very significant disruption in higher education, we still run into clients who think that the goal of their president is to be at every possible campus event. That’s just not the job anymore. It might be a part of the culture of the institution, but it is not a part of the president’s job.”

The high rate of turnover in the president’s office: “To be perfectly frank, this is a problem. The only people who really benefit from this level of turnover are people like me, and that’s not a good thing, not even for us. It’s a bad thing for higher education. Some of the turnover is going to be dictated by the failure of presidents to rectify issues. Some of it is caused by frustration. Turnover, particularly since it’s the job of the president to articulate the institution’s mission and to build relationships around that mission, means mission-critical relationships are sacrificed . . .”

Balancing confidentiality and transparency in a search: “And so what we’re doing, and I think a lot of firms are doing, is what we at least refer to as a hybrid process . . . instead of having a broad-based Greek democracy, where God and everyone can come in and provide you with input on your candidates, because everyone gets to look under their cuticles, what we do is create more of a representative republic, so that each of the key constituencies, in ways that are individual to the institutions we serve—it’s done in a lot of different ways—are represented by a smaller group of people who are all sworn to secrecy, who interact with the candidate on behalf of their constituency and provide that feedback to the board.”

Creating a legitimate search process: “It’s the old adage, ‘Well begun is half done.’ A large part of this process and the legitimization of the process is listening on the front end. And people have things that they want to accomplish in a change of leadership. Now, sometimes that’s change; sometimes that’s continuity; sometimes it’s in between. There are all sorts of things. And one of the more fascinating parts of our job is to be able to sit back and figure out what those things are.”

We invite you to listen to the full interview, including more frank discussion about the presidential search within higher education.

The Witt & Wisdom Team

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