Picking a college president can be a challenging task Timing, ego, chance tend to drive process that's often political

October 15, 1995|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

The Johns Hopkins University and St. Mary's College have been delayed several months in finding presidents, campus officials say, but they still believe they will have new leaders by the start of the next academic year.

At Hopkins, trustees had to rectify power struggles and blurred lines of commands at the medical institutions before they could proceed to their presidential search, university board chairman Morris W. Offit said. The school has had an acting president, Daniel Nathans, since William Richardson left in June.

At St. Mary's, a consulting firm offered trustees a list of semi-finalists to replace President Edward T. Lewis, who is retiring at the end of the year. Unimpressed, the board sent the list back and demanded new choices. Neither campus has a list of finalists.

The challenges faced by the two schools point out the difficulty of selecting a president. Even without major errors, the choice can involve a highly political process, campus observers say, often driven by timing, chance and ego.

University boards find themselves searching for new leaders more often than ever -- an average of every five or six years -- as political and financial pressures often drain campus chiefs.

In Maryland, besides Hopkins and St. Mary's, two other schools are seeking presidents: Salisbury State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. And five have filled the post in the past 15 months: Bowie State University, Hood College, Loyola College, the University of Maryland at Baltimore and Washington College.

"There are a number of very exceptional people who are not interested in such positions, and it's very difficult to fill them," said Daniel Fallon, provost at the University of Maryland College Park. Dr. Fallon has been interviewed for campus presidencies but says he has turned down opportunities to interview lately.

High turnover

"There is considerable turnover in this position. That is indicative of the difficulty of the job and the limited rewards affiliated with it," he said.

Most campuses follow a process something like this: the president resigns, and the board of trustees creates a search committee heavy on trustees and sprinkled with a few faculty members, students and administrators. An advertisement is placed in The Chronicle for Higher Education, a weekly trade journal.

Many do pursue the jobs with the vigor of children after a Good Humor van. But it's considered unseemly to be seen as applying directly. Instead candidates are nominated -- or, more accurately, they ask people to nominate them.

Retired IRS Commissioner Shirley D. Peterson, recently inaugurated at Hood, said she knew upon leaving government in 1993 that she wanted to lead a college. "I had been asked to go on the board of trustees at Bryn Mawr [College], and so I let my friends at Bryn Mawr know" she wanted to be a college president, she said. She also told a friend who is a professor at the University of Kansas. And when she asked a president at a California college how to land herself a similar post, he sprang into action.

"He started nominating me for all kinds of things," she said.

A search committee often will hire a head-hunting firm to solicit candidates and to sort the serious ones from the frivolous.

The head-hunter also protects aspiring presidents, insulating them from direct contact with the school until late in the search process, allowing them to avoid the ire of their current employers.

Campuses typically pay head-hunters one-third of the projected first-year salary of the new president -- which works out to a fee of about $40,000 to $100,000.

Relying on outsiders can backfire. While he said the firm of Korn, Ferry, knows what college officials are willing to consider a change in scenery, Dr. Lewis argued that the delay in St. Mary's search resulted from the firm pushing candidates with which it already was familiar.

Narrowing the choices

Once the list of possible leaders is boiled down to 20 or so, the search committee launches into interviews, often back-to-back, several-hour sessions.

Finalists, typically three to five people, are smuggled onto campus to meet with representatives of different constituencies. The impression made during those encounters often can seal or scuttle an offer, carrying an influence beyond its true worth, some suggest.

"The real danger is when you begin to interview candidates at the airport, or winnow it down to the final three or four. You forget that the most important thing to be looking at is someone's career achievements," said Dr. Lewis of St. Mary's. "That's what you have to hire on. You can't hire someone on the brilliant interview."

And even after all that, last-minute candidates sometimes emerge. Dr. Richardson, then a vice president at Pennsylvania State University, was a late addition to the mix the last time

Hopkins was looking, trustees said.

Surprises can trip up even seemingly perfect matches.

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