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Originally published: “Presidents and Mission,” Inside Higher Ed , September 21, 2011

Inside Higher EdSeveral years ago, as I began the process of learning about a faith-based college in my role as the institution’s presidential search consultant, a member of the campus community asked me how the search committee would know if candidates in fact met the bylaws requirement that its president be an active practitioner of that faith. My questioner suggested that I ask all candidates for the name of their pastor and that I then interview those pastors.

Apart from the logistical challenges of such a task, I recognized that I would feel uneasy asking members of the clergy about the spiritual life of their congregants. To do so would also require the permission of the candidates. But those considerations aside, I recognized that even if members of the clergy vouched for the active participation of a given candidate in the denomination’s religious services and central rituals, that might not tell the search committee what it really wanted to know: whether the candidate — if he or she became president — would in fact embody, foster and even advance the mission of the college not only in terms of its religious affiliation but in all other ways.

At the same time, I understood and appreciated the importance for this and other faith-based colleges of appointing someone who — in addition to possessing all the other requisite skills and experience necessary to be a successful president — also actively embraced the college’s faith tradition and was genuinely committed to a mission that derived from the college’s religious heritage.

In this particular case, a very strong candidate with impressive credentials who had been a faculty member and a senior administrator at several institutions affiliated with the same denomination as the hiring institution emerged and was selected. He was an internationally known scholar who had written extensively about matters of importance to his religion. He had contributed in various ways to the programs sponsored by campus ministry at the colleges where he had taught and been an administrator. He had been an active member and played a leadership role in his church. No one on the committee had any doubts about his being an active practitioner of this particular faith or his dedication to the college’s mission.

As I facilitated subsequent searches at other colleges, which had been founded — as so many of American private colleges have been — by religious denominations, I concluded that this particular search had been amazingly uncomplicated. In later searches, for example, successful candidates needed to have views consistent with one of the branches of the denomination. And — as I imagine most readers of Inside Higher Ed know — some of those branches have differing values, particularly in terms of contemporary social issues. There is also a range in terms of the degree of denominational influence on the colleges that the denomination founded and sometimes still sponsors.

Although the criterion that candidates be practitioners of a particular faith inevitably means a narrower pool than one generated for an institution for which religion is not a factor, the good news is that the pool most likely will be populated by a number of people for whom that hard-to-define but very real notion of “fit” would be right. The question of whether or not candidates are genuinely committed to the hiring institution’s mission and values is of course not limited to faith-based institutions. The same question exists at secular colleges and universities. Specifically, regardless of an institution’s origins, most colleges and universities — whether faith-based or secular — define a set of values that are central to them.

Both institutions and candidates therefore need to be both honest with themselves and with one another in terms of whether they do have shared values. In this regard, I suggest that once a search committee has met in person those candidates who seem strongest on paper, all committee members should be rigorous in discussing candidly whether or not and even more importantly why or why not they can make the imaginative leap to see one or more of these candidates as their next president. This discussion should focus not merely on impressions (although the group should pay attention to impressions that are widely held) but on how the experience, capabilities and temperament of the candidate match the institution’s need.

For their part, candidates should only seek presidencies for which they believe that by experience, capabilities and temperament they are genuinely suited. I know of too many candidates who simply “want to be a college president.” They apply promiscuously to an array of positions. I have never seen such candidates succeed. The candidates who do succeed are those whose own imagination has been captured by the college or university in question and who begin to envision what they could contribute and accomplish as president of that particular institution.

As Sweet Briar College President Jo Ellen Parker emphasized when we recently discussed this topic, candidates need to be focused on whether they in fact are a match for a particular position rather than on how to make themselves look like a match. As she put it, “Candidates do best to be rigorously honest with themselves (and consultants and hiring committees) about what their histories, preferences, and abilities suit them to do effectively, just as hiring committees do best to recognize that there may not be easy single litmus tests to ascertain a candidate’s authenticity.”

During my years as a faculty member, an administrator and now a consultant, I have read literally hundreds and hundreds of letters of interest from people seeking administrative positions, almost all of whom expressly declare that they endorse the institution’s mission. The strongest of these candidates will have read the institutional profile with care and have tailored their letters accordingly.

The problem comes when a candidate is so eager to become a president that she or he professes a commitment that is not genuine. For example, I have seen the same candidate declare a preference for a faith-based institution in one letter and then in a subsequent search profess great interest in leading a secular college. This candidate might well be able to lead both types of institutions. It was the unequivocal nature of the assertion of his preference in each letter that concerned the search committee. Another candidate, who apparently also saw himself as versatile, declared publicly during a campus visit to a large state university that his vocation was to be the provost of such an institution. Only weeks later, as a finalist at a small private liberal arts college, he told the search committee that his vocation was to be the president of that kind of institution. Once again, it was the unequivocal nature of this claim that gave the committee pause.

There was also the case of a candidate who in his letter of interest asserted, as a number of candidates do, that he had been preparing all his life for this particular presidency. Unfortunately, he addressed the letter not to me nor to the committee but to a consultant at another firm who was involved in a similar search. Although amused by the mistake, committee members unanimously decided to remove him from consideration because they did not believe he was genuinely interested in their college.

I have also seen presidents who, as candidates, believed (and sometimes innocently so) that they could easily make the transition to an institution very different from the ones where they had experience, only to discover that in fact they were not comfortable in their new setting. For example, I know of presidents who — having moved either from small private colleges to large universities or from large universities to small campuses — have struggled to accommodate the differences.

  • One new president was so frustrated with his new small private college’s tradition of a significant faculty involvement in governance that he complained to the trustees that the faculty would not let him “do anything.” He soon departed back to the world of the large public university. A faculty member welcomed his departure, announcing publicly, “Our long national nightmare is over.” Both this president and the faculty generally were extremely talented. They were simply mismatched.
  • A president who had been an administrator at a prestigious private university resisted the notion that he should be “present” on the campus of the small private college he now led. He refused to eat in the dining hall with students or go to the faculty-staff lounge for an occasional lunch and informal conversation. Both students and faculty were restive under his leadership.
  • A president who had similarly spent his early years at a respected research university created panic at his regional college, whose mission had previously been teaching, when he declared to his new faculty colleagues that they needed to have at least one and preferably two books published by a reputable press if they were to be awarded tenure. This policy over time created a serious split in the faculty. Those who had already earned tenure had very different priorities about how they used their time than did their new, younger colleagues. The former group kept extensive office hours, took an active role on college committees and could be found on campus pretty much from 9-5. The younger faculty, in contrast, spent most of their non-teaching time in the library or at their home office writing. They kept the minimum number of required office hours and tried to avoid serving on time-consuming committees.
  • A president of a large public university after a career spent on private campuses found herself constrained by the legislature. She was not used to having to justify the importance of education.
  • The president of another large public university, who similarly had come from a smaller institution with a self-perpetuating board, worried about the level of commitment from an ever-changing board appointed by the governor. She noted that within two years, her board would include no one who had voted to hire her.

Although others have successfully made the transition from one kind of institution to another, in my experience these presidents have understood from the outset that their environment will be very different. One new president, for example, who went from the Ivy League to a small regional private college, spent the months between his appointment and taking office meeting with a great many successful presidents of small colleges to gain their sense of what he needed to do to be successful.

But despite the differences among institutions and despite the fact that many campuses market themselves as being distinctive in some ways, there is a great deal of commonality in terms of what is important today on most campuses. For that reason, institutions also need to be clear about their actual priorities, and candidates need to be honest about whether they can legitimately claim to have the ability to lead the institution to achieve these priorities. For example, most contemporary institutions pride themselves on their commitment to and seek a president who is also committed to one or more of the following:

  • Sustainability.
  • Service learning and/or civic engagement.
  • Interdisciplinarity.
  • Diversity.
  • Preparing students to be global citizens.
  • Fostering good relationships with the local community.

Colleges and universities also almost inevitably seek a president who embraces their particular mission. For example:

  • Liberal arts colleges typically seek a president who believes in and will be an advocate for the value of the liberal arts.
  • A women’s college is likely to seek a president who values single-sex education.
  • Institutions that blend the liberal arts with pre-professional programs want a leader who endorses that approach.
  • Many faculty and staff members today call for a president who will be “transparent,” who will practice shared governance and who will be an excellent listener and communicator.
  • Many campuses want to know the views of candidates about intercollegiate athletics, including their understanding of and attitude toward the campus’s affiliation, typically NCAA Division I, II or III or NAIA. Candidates on these campuses are likely to be asked for their opinion about athletic scholarships, which model of athletics they support, their commitment to provide resources to make their athletic program more competitive (or maintain its competitiveness) and even how they feel about students missing class for away games.
  • Faculty, staff, students and trustees at colleges and universities with fraternities and sororities are likely to want to know how candidates view the Greek system. (Here I do want to note that questions about the role of athletics and fraternities/sororities may be especially tricky for candidates in that on some campuses members of the faculty would like to diminish the role of athletics and the Greek system even as at least some trustees want them to be vital programs.)

Faculty members typically want to know what criteria candidates believe should be used for granting tenure and promotion, often asking the following questions:

  • How important is good teaching? Is it a necessary and sufficient condition or a necessary condition but not a sufficient one?
  • If good teaching is not a sufficient condition, what role should scholarship and performance play in tenure and promotion decisions?
  • How much and what kind of scholarship, research or artistic endeavors should count?
  • How much and what kind of scholarship, research or artistic endeavors would be enough?
  • Should faculty members be expected to secure external support for their work?
  • How much does institutional service count?
  • Is advising considered part of teaching or of service?

Colleges and universities also have varied approaches to online learning whose approach is compatible with their own.

So what should search committees ask candidates to provide when the question is about their commitment to institutional mission and to the college or university’s expressed values? And what should candidates provide that goes beyond either such claims as: “I am committed to diversity and sustainability” or such longer discourses about the value of, for example, the liberal arts, service learning, interdisciplinary programs and global citizenship.

Because past performance so often predicts future performance, I think it appropriate for colleges and universities to ask candidates to include in their letters of interest a discussion of what they have done that illustrates their commitment to the institution’s mission and expressed. This leaves it to the candidate to make the case in whatever ways he or she believes most persuasive. Such a statement also has the benefit of providing the search committee with information that allows them during an interview to probe whether the kind and degree of commitment fits their expectations.

There is an array of possibilities that candidates might describe to exemplify their commitment to the institution’s mission and values. These might include, for example, one or more of the following:

  • If the question is whether candidates are committed to an interdisciplinary approach to the curriculum, they might devote a paragraph or two in their cover letter to discussing interdisciplinary courses that they have taught and/or as an administrator any curricular or co-curricular interdisciplinary programs that they have developed.
  • If the question is the commitment of candidates to an international focus, they might describe not only international courses they have taught and international programs they have developed but also whether they have studied, done research, led programs and even simply traveled abroad.
  • If the hiring institution is especially interested in good town-gown relationships, candidates might offer specific examples of community partnerships that they have developed or at the very least participated in. They might also talk about the ways that they have contributed to the communities in which they have lived, as volunteers or board members for example.
  • Candidates might also point to books and essays that they have written and presentations that they have made, to service on nonprofit boards and/or to volunteer service that either illuminates or advocates for some aspect of the college’s mission.
  • If the institutional profile has called for transparent leadership and shared governance, candidates would do well to provide some specific examples of their transparency and collaboration with faculty colleagues. They would also do well in this arena to select at least one reference who could speak to these traits with firsthand knowledge.

One of my favorite literary quotes is T.S. Eliot’s line in “The Hollow Men”:

“Between the conception and the execution/Falls the shadow.” To my mind, candidates need to lift the shadow and go beyond the conception to demonstrate how they have made things happen that suggest that their commitment to the institution’s mission and values is more than expedient.

Having said all of this, I confess that the approach I am advocating may in fact not be pertinent to all searches because sometimes boards are seeking a new president who will modify the institution’s mission in a particular way or change an institution’s emphasis or program mix. To complicate this even further, some boards share such goals with their presidential candidates but not with the campus. Two examples will illustrate what I mean:

  • In several highly publicized instances in the past decade or two, a relatively new president of a women’s college has announced that the college was going to go co-ed. In each case, there has been an outcry on the campus and from the alumni about this decision. It is widely believed that this choice was something that the board had advocated at the time of the presidential appointment, but because the campuses did not know of the board’s views, the new presidents were accused of having been disingenuous at the time of their appointment.
  • At three institutions I know, presidents have introduced distance learning and satellite programs over the strong objections of the faculty who believed that their college’s mission required them to provide students with a good deal of one on one, face to face time. Here too, the presidents moved in this direction because their charge from their board had been to develop new revenue streams. In two cases, these new programs were so financially successful that the campus eventually accepted them. The third institution is still struggling with the question.

Such circumstances inevitably create consternation on campuses and concerns among the campus community. In an ideal world, boards would make it clear at the beginning of a presidential search what they will ask the next president to do. Barring that, the president in these situations need to work especially hard both to explain the rationale behind the decision and to be as transparent as possible going forward.

In the last few weeks, I had two illuminating conversations with candidates for the presidency at a compelling faith-based small private college. Both conversations are pertinent to this discussion.

The first candidate did not have experience that seemed readily to translate to this college, but he was deeply intrigued by the place and clearly moved by its mission. I suggested that he try to write a cover letter illustrating how his experience to date translated to the opportunities and challenges of the college. I advised him that if the letter wrote easily, he should become a candidate. If he was struggling to make the connection, then probably the fit was not right.

The second candidate was someone that I hoped would become a candidate. Four or five people I respected had said that she was ready to be a president and sang her praises in ways that impressed me. As of this writing, she hasn’t yet decided, but in an extended phone conversation, she taught me something new about what it means to be a practitioner of one’s faith and I immediately realized that her formulation worked for all of the areas I have discussed above. Her explanation: she was an active practitioner because she knew that she needed to “keep practicing” until she got it right.