Several recent reports about the college presidency spotlight the increasing complexity and escalating demands of a role that may reasonably be described as challenging. Certain aspects of the presidency are romanticized given the perquisites of the office and its stature. Yet, the expectations are relentless and the demands unremitting, even under the best of circumstances. For under-resourced institutions such as historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) it does not take long for romanticism to morph into realism.
Much like private industry in the 1980s and 1990s, higher education is undergoing dramatic change. Deregulation of banking, airlines, and healthcare for example, has had a huge impact far beyond individual sectors. In higher education, the proliferation of for-profit schools, online universities, as well as some community colleges offering bachelor’s degrees has altered the landscape significantly. The acquisition of privately held Kaplan University by Purdue University, for example, means that the incumbent president now must oversee the integration of a business with a different organizational culture with a traditional land-grant university toward the creation of a radically new business model.
The foregoing attests to the need for governing boards to give serious thought about what type of leader is needed to ensure sustainability in a rapidly changing environment.
Indeed, this is a critical part of a board’s fiduciary responsibility. Presidents come and go but governing boards must take the long view. Succession planning and leadership development are indispensable to the task of ensuring that colleges and universities remain competitive.
Organizations require a certain type of leadership at different stages of their development. A thoughtful, informed, and engaged board must know what skill sets are required of the next leader of the university. Also, the board is expected to remove landmines and other impediments to a successful presidency beforehand. In short, succession planning and all that it entails requires serious board engagement. In the instant case of HBCUs where the margin for error is often zero, proactive board engagement is indispensable.