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Presidential Succession Planning

Successful succession planning can smooth the way for effective leadership transition, maintaining an institution’s momentum. It can also ensure constituent support for the individual who understands the institution’s strengths and vulnerabilities and who can develop a collective vision that reflects the history and aspirations on the institution.

An investment by the board in cultivating internal candidates will pay off handsomely by strengthening institutional leadership.

Because succession planning is not common in higher education, boards and presidents will want to be aware of its pros and cons and anticipate how to make it successful on their campuses.

By and large, higher education has not embraced succession planning. However, presidential succession planning and systematic leadership development are important tools for ensuring continued strong leadership of colleges and universities and the success of long-term institutional goals.
 
Succession planning in higher education does not typically mean that the successor to the president or chancellor is chosen and announced well in advance of the president’s retirement or departure, although that is common in corporate settings. Instead, it means that careful thought has been given to the ability of one or more staff members to be viable candidates for institutional leadership. It also means that mentoring and leadership development have been provided to those who show the potential to become the next president or chancellor. And, it means that the board is open to the possibility of an internal candidate for the position.
 

Future Problems in the Academic Presidency

Three major problems on the horizon for the presidency are making succession planning particularly important:

  • The aging of current presidents will lead to unprecedented turnover over in the next ten years. A 2006 survey conducted by the American Council on Education found that 49 percent of sitting presidents were 61 years of age or older.
  • The same turnover is expected among chief academic officers who have traditionally filled the pipeline to the academic presidency.
  • The demand for top presidential candidates will result in intense competition among institutions.

Components of a Succession Plan

A comprehensive succession plan should address the following:

  • Presidential transitions following the announced departure of a sitting president as well as temporary presidential absences due to illness or sabbatical
  • Processes for determining the nature of the presidential search—a national search or an appointment? Use of a search firm or not? Appointment of an interim or not?
  • Processes for appointing a search committee; developing an institutional profile and desired leadership profile; interviewing, referencing, and selecting a president
  • An assimilation plan for the new president
  • A timeframe for these processes
  • A process for identifying and developing potential internal candidates.

The Board’s Role in Succession Planning

Working with the president or chancellor, boards can prepare for leadership changes by ensuring that processes are in place to anticipate change, take stock of internal talent, and encourage and prepare potential internal candidates for the presidency. Whether or not the candidate eventually becomes the institution’s president or chancellor, identifying and developing leadership ability strengthens the institution; it has the important side benefit of building leadership strength for higher education.

Does your institution have a formal succession plan that addresses both temporary and permanent presidential transitions?

Have you encouraged your president to identify and provide leadership training for promising internal candidates?

Does your institution offer a leadership development program or the opportunity to participate in such a program offered by other organizations?

Is your institution’s human resources department prepared to assist in the process of leadership development, search, and assimilation?

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