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On Presidential Transitions: The Lesson of the Sankofa

On Presidential Transitions: The Lesson of the Sankofa

The late Bill Bowen, former president of Princeton University, often referred to those of us who survived our academic presidencies as “the dinosaur brigade.” These days, one of the oft-repeated questions posed to some members of the brigade concerns proper presidential transitions. I offer an example as a possible guide for how boards might think more broadly about presidential searches and their outcomes.

Right after the presidential search committee began its work, the retiring president started to work on her transition notebook. As the search committee labored on to find the school’s next president, the notebook began to take shape. It included a précis of each trustee, copies of each retiring president’s confidential annual report to her trustees, and the curricula vitae, along with the most current contracts, of the senior administrators. The vice president for academic affairs provided short statements on teaching and scholarship for each faculty member in the college’s various departments. The CFO contributed the past five board-approved budgets with annotations. The advancement vice president provided case statements and final accountings for the most recent annual funds and the last comprehensive campaign. The dean of admissions brought detailed composites of the past five years’ admissions results. The director of facilities wrote a comprehensive, building-by-building narrative of the physical state of the campus. When all the suggested edits had been incorporated into the final draft, the board chair and the retiring president signed off on the document, and confidential copies were duly made and collated.

The night before the board’s public announcement of the new president to the campus community and media, the retiring president presented her successor with the five-inch-thick transition notebook. In the ensuing months, the retiring president, the president-elect, and the board chair spent days meeting privately off campus to discuss various aspects of the school’s organization and to answer the president-elect’s myriad questions after his careful study of the notebook.

Thanks to the efforts of the retiring president, the new president was as informed as humanly possible about the institution he had been elected to lead. Members of the college community on campus and off were delighted at the seamless transition as one chapter of the institution’s history evolved into the next. The new president kept the transition notebook close by to consult different sections of the compendium for months after taking office.

Bill Bowen, to whose memory this short piece is respectfully dedicated, often referred to an African mythological creature, the Sankofa. I admit here that prior to a conversation with Bill in late 2003 as I was planning to leave my first presidency at Kalamazoo for my second at Trinity, I had never heard of the Sankofa. I asked my former mentor how I should think about a proper transition. He told me, albeit cryptically since I had no idea to what he was referring, to study the Sankofa. The creature’s symbolism has remained with me ever since, especially when asked about how schools might face an impending presidential change.

In Ghanan mythology, the Sankofa personifies forward motion. In its depictions, the giant bird-like creature strides forcefully into the future, eyes gleaming, sinews bulging, muscles taut with strength, but always gazing backwards whence the Sankofa has most recently come. As Bill so convincingly taught me, the message the Sankofa symbolically represents should undergird everyone’s thinking of what a proper presidential transition should entail. The Sankofa can stride forward into the future only by first knowing precisely where it has most recently traveled. Successful presidential evolutions flow from the acute combination of a proper search and a proper transition.

James F. Jones Jr. is president emeritus of Trinity College and Kalamazoo College, and former president of Sweet Briar College.

For more on presidential search and transition, please see AGB Press' new publication, A Complete Guide to Presidential Search for Universities and Colleges (2nd Edition).
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