How to Improve Presidential Searches
Seven Suggestions From Someone Who Has Been on Both Sides of the Table
By DeBow Freed

From the March 2003 AAHEBulletin.com

Selection of a president is one of the most important functions of an institution, but how effective are the procedures and how good are the results?

A general observation is that both the procedures and results are mixed, some good and some not. Many excellent presidents are chosen but the system does not consistently select outstanding candidates or serve institutional needs as well as it could/can. The approach and practice can be improved to serve those needs better.

Strengthening the presidential selection process may be the single most important way to make a quantum leap in better administrative leadership of colleges and universities. Interestingly, it does not cost more or threaten anyone. It is a major advance waiting to be taken. Its time has come.

There are three major steps to selecting a new president:

  • Analyze the institution and define its needs thoughtfully
  • Identify promising prospects
  • Carefully select the best person to lead the institution for the next several years

How can procedures be improved to select consistently an excellent president for the college or university at that point in its life?

This article reviews the current prevalent procedures, proposes changes to improve searches, and discusses implementation of those changes for greater effectiveness.

The historic approach of constituent participation or consultation combined with trustee final responsibility for selection of the president continues. However, the procedures and accepted practices for presidential searches have changed substantially over the years. The most important change has been the increasingly prominent role of commercial search firms, particularly in the last two decades. In 1980, 20 percent of searches used a commercial search firm. Currently, an estimated 85 to 90 percent use such firms.

Search firms offer institutional search committees an outline of procedures that relieve the committee of many worries about the process. The proposing search firm offers to meet, listen, and write a description of the institution and institutional needs; to identify excellent candidates from its own unique sources; and to relieve everyone involved in the process of many administrative details. Search firm presentations often seem to be a panacea for the search committee’s uncertainty and consternation about its task.

In the last two decades, many searches have, effectively, been turned over to search firms. This action does not use the institutional selection committee in the role it is best prepared to play nor the search firm to its best advantage. It leads to comments by selection committee members that institutional needs often get lost in the process and the system prevails over substance.

For example, the process often used to define institutional needs is somewhat like an open forum on campus, with the search firm as moderator. Matters of the moment carry the day. Less weight is given to longer-term needs that require perspective. Tendencies are to divide features of an institution, at a particular point in its life, into strengths and weaknesses. The real world has nuances. Descriptions of colleges in advertisements are strikingly similar and the unique features of the college in question are often lost in that similarity.

Current search processes, whether search firms are used or not, are better at identifying job seekers for the presidency than identifying those who have the capacity and qualities most likely to serve the presidency well. Members of search committees frequently comment on, and lament, the dearth of strong candidates. They often note that, even as interviewing begins, they do not see highly promising candidates in the pool. Failure to identify and attract promising candidates probably is the greatest shortcoming of searches as they are conducted today.

Screening Applicants and Interviewing Candidates

After applications are sought and obtained from a variety of sources, they are screened down to a workable number. Hopefulness usually is high at this stage. Interviews then take place, some off campus and the final few on campus. Public institutions usually have to announce the names of candidates to be interviewed on campus, a feature that discourages many good prospects from becoming candidates. Private institutions have more latitude in that regard. However, identification of candidates by public institutions usually leads to public scrutiny and investigation by the media. Frequently, this identifies strengths and weaknesses of candidates not otherwise brought out. The additional scrutiny is absent in many private college searches, often to the detriment of the search process. The advantages and disadvantages of public and private institution searches tend to balance each other in the final analysis.

Choosing Among Prime Candidates

After campus visits, comparisons are made among those who were interviewed. An individual is chosen at this stage in about 70 percent of the cases, and enthusiasm is generated for the chosen candidate. If a “must-have” candidate has not surfaced after the interview and evaluations are completed, committees normally take one of three courses of action. One approach is to select the most promising candidate from the original group of applicants. That path is chosen in an estimated 18 to 20 percent of total searches. A second approach is to extend the search and look at a new candidate or those not interviewed previously. This option is taken in 8 to 10 percent of searches. A third is to appoint an interim president and start the search over again, which occurs in 1 to 2 percent of the cases.

Due Diligence Checks

Thorough and careful due diligence checks of the top candidates are absolutely necessary. A primary reason for obvious mismatches between incoming presidents and institutions is lack of carefully checking credentials, personal histories, and verbal and written statements. The axiom that the best predictor of what a person is likely to do in the future is what he or she has done in the past is often disregarded. Failure to disclose pertinent facts by the new president or glossing over unfavorable factors by the candidate or selection committee proponents of the candidate is often a cause of future problems. Is it less likely to occur if there is genuine openness on the search committee or prior knowledge of the incoming president by several on campus.

Effectiveness of the Current System

How effective is the current system of presidential searches and how effective should it be? Measures are subjective, but it appears that results follow the pattern of other organizations where similar deliberate selection processes are employed. An often-used generalization is that about 30 percent of the selected leaders are highly effective, 40 percent are effective, 20 percent are satisfactory in varying degrees or marginal, and 10 percent are ineffective. Many problems or lost opportunities are associated with those who are ineffective, marginal, or only satisfactory, or up to 30 percent of total appointees. Those problems and lost opportunities could have been avoided through better selection and better match between the institution and its leader. How is that accomplished?

Changes for Increased Effectiveness

These are a few of the steps that can help to improve the process and lead to more apt selection of college presidents.

1. Plan Beforehand

Succession planning should be a normal part of institutional life at all levels. Relatively few presidential searches are undertaken on a surprise basis. Usually the board, faculty, and staff know beforehand when a search is likely to occur. Careful and deliberate preparation for the search can reduce the time required and lead to a more effective outcome. Preparing beforehand some of the documents that will be used in the presidential search will greatly facilitate the process. Those documents include the identification and listing of institutional needs and description of the type leadership that can meet those needs. That can be done through the process of strategic planning, which identifies institutional needs. Future leadership can be a part of those needs. Having this done beforehand can compress the usual first three months of a presidential search to about two weeks. That is one of the methods by which businesses compress their search time. It can work in higher education as well.

2. Appoint a General Consultant

Carefully selecting a general consultant, preferably before a search begins, can benefit the search and selection enormously. The type of consultant who can contribute the most is an individual with broad views, perspective, wide experience, knowledge of the profession, and a personality that will enable him or her to ask the key and critical questions without being threatening to the institution or those involved in the search process. The need is to help the selection committee see what institutional needs are for the next 10 or more years, and identify the type of leader who can best take advantage of the human, material, and financial resources that likely will be available. Fundamentally, a wise consultant can help the institution recognize its potential and its limitations and better define the type of president who is needed. The consultant can also be helpful in selecting a search firm if one is to be used.

3. Identify Good Prospects Early

Taking the time before the search begins or early in the search process to use resources available to the institutions to identify 10 to 20 excellent prospects can have an overriding impact on the search. Anecdotal data indicate that this was a key feature of historic searches that led to the appointment of many of the great American college presidents. That approach is given lip service but seldom is actually used effectively. If done well, half of the eventual prime candidates probably will come from this small group. Excellent resources are available to institutions today to assist in identifying such candidates and confirming their suitability as strong candidates.

Beyond the few strong candidates identified early, a continuing need is for the selection committee to ensure that the techniques being used to identify other promising candidates are those most likely to succeed. The selection committee should be willing to make adjustments to the techniques being used, if needed. To fail to do so is to allow the pool of candidates to fall short of the great opportunity that selection of a new president represents.

4. Shorten the Process

Many observers of presidential selections note that the process often becomes wearying, drags, loses vitality, and needs to be shortened. College presidential searches average nine months from announcement of the search to the appointment of the new president. Business CEO searches average 3.5 months. Five or six months for college searches provide ample time and give a reassuring sense of momentum to the college community.

5. Intensely Scrutinize the Best Candidates

There is a great need for intense scrutiny of the record and background of the best candidates. Searches often do not involve a thorough background check. Careful inquiry into the nature and quality of the candidates’ relationships with faculty, staff, and others, and into a variety of other relevant areas, can yield highly beneficial information. An estimated 20 percent of searches later find that there were obvious red flag items that were overlooked in the zeal to have everything about the search end on time and on a positive note. A degree of independence in the scrutiny is vital. That helps to overcome any tendency on the part of proponents of a candidate to cover up or gloss over unfavorable indicators. Business and other nonprofit CEO searches often devote two to three days to intense scrutiny of the preferred candidate and his or her background. After careful scrutiny, the search group is then able to assure its board of the validity of information on the top candidate.

6. Increase Faculty Involvement

Most searches will benefit from having more faculty members on search committees and more faculty involvement. Faculty and staff members not only have a major stake in the outcome, they also have institutional memory, knowledge, and the perspective necessary to make good choices. Faculty judgments on search committees tend to be on the mark. The anathema of some trustees toward strong faculty involvement, which sometimes assumes faculty will choose a weak, compliant leader, and is not borne out by the record. When trustees spend considerable time with faculty representatives on a search committee, they come away in most cases with renewed respect and appreciation for faculty judgment and their devotion to the institution. The strong likelihood is that faculty members will make major contributions, particularly in the judgment part of the search and selection process.

7. Protect the Search Committee From Itself

Search committees are often dominated by one of two members, to whom others will defer, particularly if the search drags out. If the dominant members of the committee are terse and tough, they may tend to force a candidate of that nature on other members. If the dominant members are wily and slick, they may tend to find favor with a candidate who reflects those same characteristics. More than half of failed searches appear to result from the forced selection of the choice of a dominant or opportunistic person on the committee or domination of the committee by one person, such as the committee chair. Boards should be aware of this potential, and deal with it in their instructions to the search committee and their periodic reviews of search committee progress. They must be blunt about this because the dominant member is usually a respected trustee. The need is to build in protection to ensure genuine participation and best judgments of all committee members.

The changes suggested here focus on those features of the process that are likely to yield the most beneficial results. They are not radical departures from current practice, but rather, modifications to increase effectiveness. These changes can help to bring renewed life and vitality to the process. Importantly, they can lead to a far more productive process and contribute to major strengthening of higher education leadership through consistent selection of outstanding presidents.


DeBow Freed is president emeritus at Ohio Northern University and has been involved in several presidential searches as a participant, an advisor, and an observer. Contact him at d-freed@onu.edu.


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