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Trusteeship Magazine

A View from the Trenches: The Essential Elements of a Presidential Search


The fundamental obligation of the board of trustees to select a new president is more important than ever in the extremely challenging environment of higher education in the 21st century.

While it is possible to conduct a search without paid consultants, few institutions have the resources available or the expertise in conducting such an important search to proceed without consultants.

Whether the search is conducted on an open or a confidential basis, detailed planning, the selection of a search consultancy that fits the institution, and diligent participation by search committee members in a transparent process will help the institution ensure success.

This article is based on the author’s experience in two presidential searches, one as a member and the other as co-chair of the search committee at an independent college. It primarily focuses on a few of the more challenging aspects of the process related to conducting searches on a confidential basis and in an abbreviated time frame. Given the focus on potentially confidential searches, that portion of the article may have limited applicability to public institutions.

Perhaps the most fundamental obligation of the board of trustees is the selection of a new president. This function is more important than ever in the extremely challenging environment of higher education in the 21st century. AGB recently published The 21st-Century Presidency: A Call to Enterprise Leadership, written by Terrence MacTaggart, former chancellor, Minnesota State University System and University of Maine System (see story here). One of the principal recommendations of the report is:

Boards need to play the decisive role in structuring presidential search processes, identifying a small group of finalists and selecting the president. It is important to engage a wide range of constituents early in the search processes, identifying a small group of finalists and selecting the president.

This must have an impact in the search process at every step. Searches vary in many ways, but several components are common to most:

  • Appointment and chartering of a search committee
  • Interviews with search consultants before choosing one
  • Creation of a “presidential profile” setting forth the characteristics being sought in the new president
  • Solicitation of a candidate pool
  • Selection of candidates in conducting first-round “airport interviews”
  • Selection of final candidates for on-campus interviews
  • Committee report to the full board for making an offer to the preferred candidate

The board and, when appointed, the search committee must determine the timing of the search. A key element for this decision will be the length of the transition the institution faces.

Frequently, significant lead time will be available, for example when a longterm president has decided to retire from the institution and gives notice well in advance of his or her departure. When this is the case, the board generally will have the opportunity to carry out the search in what could be called the traditional “search season”—commencing in the summer prior to the incumbent president’s departure with a view toward hiring the new president during the winter or early spring, with a start date at the beginning of the fiscal year. At most institutions, this is July 1.

In other instances, however, institutions are faced with a more rapid departure schedule, and the search, to ensure a new leader is in place upon the departure of the incumbent, must be conducted in a more truncated manner. In this situation, one of the first determinations that the board must make is whether to search for the new president in the diminished time frame or seek an interim leader and conduct the more traditional search.

The immediate reaction may be to “buy time” by going the interim route, and there are search consultancies that will assist with interim placements. There also may be a logical internal candidate for the interim role. The primary advantage of this path is that the institution can obtain a qualified leader with a “steady hand” to allow the search to proceed, or in some instances the interim can bring expertise, perhaps as a change agent, that the institution needs on a short-term basis but would not be the optimal skill set for the next chief executive. Negatives to the interim approach include additional expense and a potential for a loss of momentum in urgent needs and strategies of the institution.


A major task early in the process is the selection of a consulting firm to assist the board and the search committee. While it is possible to conduct a search without paid consultants, few institutions have the resources available or the expertise in conducting such an important search to proceed without consultants.

When seeking the best consulting firm for a particular search, the board should consider various factors. It should seek bids, which will allow the consulting firms to weigh in on the advantages or disadvantages of seeking an interim president and the timing of the search. As with the selection of any outsourced activity, ensuring the “fit” of not only the firm but also the individual consultants who will be working with the institution is of paramount importance. This determination requires assessing the types of institution for which the firm has conducted successful (and, importantly, less successful) searches and their similarities to your institution, including size, independent versus public, and institution demographics.

All consultancies will place advertisements in the appropriate media venues, but in most cases the best candidates for a particular position are those who are brought into the search by the consultants’ proactive efforts, or in some instances, institution-affiliated individuals who know of such potential candidates. The “fit” of the consultants to the institution can be critical in locating such people.

Learning precisely how each firm will staff the process is essential. This is particularly important for smaller institutions, which do not have significant internal resources to devote to the search. Questions to ask, and assurances to receive, relate to precisely which consultants will be working with the school, how many simultaneous searches the consultants will be undertaking, and whether they use a team or single consultant approach. All major consulting firms utilize a secure portal for posting candidate information for use by the committee, and it may be helpful to obtain access to the portal to determine the ease-of-use of its interface.

Another important issue is ascertaining how involved the consultants will be in helping the committee winnow the applicant pool down to a reasonable size and in providing their views about applicant quality and fit. Firms vary in their involvement in this process, so the board and the search committee will want to understand the role that the consultants are willing to play in advance rather than risking disappointment as the process moves forward.

If the institution plans to move forward with a more truncated search, it is important to ensure that the consultants encourage such a search and believe that the climate in the marketplace is such that a viable candidate pool will result. It would be unfortunate to retain consultants who are not totally invested in the truncated search and be faced with an implicit “I told you so” attitude at the end of the process.


The remaining task for the board is to appoint the search committee. The board needs to determine the constituencies that will become a part of the committee and the balance between board members and representatives of other constituencies. Most boards find it appropriate to have a majority of the members be current trustees. The size of the search committee is also an issue to consider. While a small committee has obvious efficiencies, there are likely too many constituencies that need to buy in to the ultimate selection to make a very small committee (fewer than 10 people) practical. Among the groups that will seek participation, and express extreme disappointment if not afforded it, are executive leadership, faculty, the local community, and alumni. Balancing the size versus inclusiveness will be an important task for the board. A lack of sufficient inclusion can present problems at the end of the search, particularly if there is a lack of unanimity as to the appropriate candidate for the presidency or if the search remains confidential.

The search committee must have a detailed charter setting forth its charge and the methodology by which the board wishes it to proceed. The charter should include information about funding for the committee’s operations, staffing of the committee by the institution (beyond that provided by the consultants), the time frame for the search, and, perhaps most important, what the board expects from the committee at the end of the search process. The board must determine whether it wishes the committee to recommend a single candidate or provide the board with multiple finalists, setting out the committee’s views of the strengths and weaknesses of each and under what circumstances the committee should recommend repeating the search because of the absence of an acceptable candidate. Without such a detailed charter, the institution runs the risk that the board and committee will be out of sync, and the most important portion of the search—the “closing”— will be more difficult.

All members of the search committee should sign a simple confidentiality agreement to ensure that committee deliberations remain within the committee. Requiring all committee members to sign such an agreement, including the trustee members (who, based on their positions, are already subject to confidentiality requirements), helps reduce potential reluctance by non-trustee members. The existence of this agreement provides benefits beyond ensuring confidentiality, including enabling committee members, when they are asked for information about committee operations, to simply say they are bound by the terms of a confidentiality agreement. The existence of these agreements may also assist the committee if the search remains confidential.

Once appointed, the search committee, working with the consultants, will quickly need to accomplish a number of things. It will need to set a timeline for its operations and to develop the profile document that will be used to solicit candidates. The committee and the consultants would be wise to meet with various campus constituencies to ensure the profile includes the characteristics they believe are important in a new leader. In all likelihood, it will not be possible, or even advisable, for the committee to include all that it hears from the constituent groups. However, for ultimate credibility, understanding the various “hot button” issues is important so the committee can take them into account in developing its recommendations.

Early in the process, the search committee should begin discussing whether the search will be “open” or “confidential.” The traditional search has generally ended with finalists participating in on-campus interviews that include some type of public or quasi-public forum. Rigid adherence to this process, however, can, at least in this author’s view, limit the pool of viable candidates, particularly when the search is being conducted in a compressed time frame. Generally, this decision can wait until later in the search process.

If the committee is willing to retain flexibility with respect to the confidentiality of the final interviews and the search consultants can communicate that flexibility, it may result in a broader pool of candidates, particularly sitting presidents or others in situations where disclosure of their participation could adversely affect their current position. Maintaining this flexibility is easily accomplished since searches are generally confidential until the committee has settled on its group of finalists.

Providing for the potential of a fully confidential search does, however, require the search committee to create a process that will lend itself to constituent “buy-in” for a candidate whom large numbers of constituents have not seen “live and in person.”

The committee must also focus on the “public face” of the search process. This is an important aspect of any search, but is even more critical in the context of a search that has the potential for remaining confidential.

Each institution must tailor its communication strategy to its own personality, but several components will be critical to success. Communications in the 21st century are increasingly dominated by the use of electronic and social media. The search committee needs to develop a visible and accessible web page within the institution’s site and ensure that updates are made on a regular basis. Electronic communication “blasts” to the various constituent groups should reference these updates. This page will keep interested parties informed of progress in the search. It can also reference the possibility of a confidential search, if warranted, to introduce the community to that concept. A portal to the search committee through which it can answer questions will enable the committee or its leadership to take the pulse of constituent views as the search progresses. Numerous embellishments can be added to this basic process, including video clips from search committee members representing various constituencies and communications from the board or board chair as warranted.


Once applications are received, the committee will select a group of applicants for the first round of off-campus “airport interviews.” This first round of interviews should result in three to five candidates whom the committee wishes to bring to campus.

At this point, the search process will reach a critical juncture. The committee must address the issue of the continued confidentiality of the search. Some candidates may have participated based on the process being confidential. Now is the time to weigh the advantages of maintaining a confidential process for those candidates against the benefits of conducting interviews in a public forum.

If the committee, perhaps with the concurrence of the board or its executive committee, concludes that the search should retain the candidates who had sought confidentiality— and if those individuals believe they continue to require confidentiality— the remainder of the search must be structured to allow the on-campus interviews to proceed in a manner that will not compromise the candidates’ confidentiality. At this point, the committee’s prior efforts to keep the community involved and apprised of all activities of the committee should yield their benefit.

The board and the search committee will need to determine how best to conduct on-campus interviews in a confidential setting. The committee may believe it is important for individuals from the various campus constituencies to participate in the interview process. There are a number of ways to accomplish this, but one that can lead to a greater degree of campus buy-in is the creation of a search advisory group with members drawn from the various constituencies. The committee can appoint this group based on a number of criteria, but to give the group a feeling of ownership, the committee can ask the leadership of each constituency to appoint a small number of individuals who will represent not only the advisory group, but also the people who will be part of an open interview process.

A condition of service on this advisory group will be a willingness to enter into the same confidentiality agreement used by the search committee. Again, the early planning of including the trustees in the agreements can help overcome a feeling of second-class status. In this way, various constituencies will feel they are part of the deliberative process while maintaining confidentiality.

Interviews will be scheduled with the top candidates at secure locations on or near the campus and can include the search committee itself, the advisory committee, and important campus constituencies such as the president’s leadership team, all under confidentiality agreements.

It is impossible for a confidential search to satisfy every person or group that wants direct involvement in the selection process. However, a combination of an inclusive search committee, a transparent and informative process with good web and social media presence, and a well-selected advisory group can go a long way in limiting naysayers’ ability to gain traction. As previously noted, the advantage of an institution’s willingness to keep the search process confidential is the likelihood of obtaining a broader range of potential candidates who otherwise would not have participated.

Once the committee has completed the interview process, it will report back to the board with well-informed recommendations, as specified in its charter. Whether the search is conducted on an open or a confidential basis, detailed planning, the selection of a search consultancy that fits the institution, and diligent participation by search committee members in a transparent process will help the institution ensure success in this most important undertaking.

Diversity in the Search: Make It Explicit

As higher education faces a growing barrage of challenges—from college affordability and funding issues to student unrest and political divisiveness—institutions must attract a new generation of leaders. As Terrence MacTaggart notes in The 21st-Century President: A Call to Enterprise Leadership, 20th-century approaches no longer suffice. Today’s educational landscape requires presidents to possess different talents and skills than in the past.

At the same time, the profile of a typical college or university president hasn’t changed much over the past 30 years. For the first time in 2016, AGB’s Policies, Practices, and Composition of Governing and Foundation Boards captured gender and race/ethnicity of institutional presidents. The survey found that the vast majority of public and independent presidents are male (75.9 percent among publics and 72.6 percent among independents) and white (77 percent among publics and 86.8 percent among independents). Racial and ethnic minorities represent only 16.9 percent of presidents at public institutions and 7.7 percent at independents.

Moreover, aspiring LGBTQ candidates continue to face barriers for top leadership positions. The limitations and related discussions led to an informal network of presidents forming their own organization, LGBTQ Presidents in Higher Education, in 2010.

Governing boards have a unique opportunity to guide their institutions into a successful new era by rejecting the status quo and selecting leaders through purposeful inclusion. This means opening the door to a diverse pool of candidates and being explicit—with the search committee, the board at large, the campus community, and the candidates themselves—that inclusion is the surest path to excellence.

Strong leadership is not restricted by gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. Tapping broad reservoirs of talent ensures that the institution avails itself of a wide spectrum of skills and experience—and attracts the best candidates for the position. Creating a diverse candidate pool should be an institutional imperative.

Rod McDavis, managing principal, AGB Search

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