What happens when a college can’t find a new president

Failed presidential searches are a nightmare for all involved. For the university, it means going back to the drawing board. For the candidate, it’s time and energy spent in vain.

But how often do presidential searches fail? And why?

The answer to both questions can be difficult to pin down. But some scholars believe that more presidential searches are failing. In some cases, a college can’t find a suitable candidate, so no one is offered the job. Other times a board hires a president who winds up leaving before the end of their appointed term.

To take one example, Evergreen State College in May 2021 identified three finalists to fill a presidential vacancy, but they dropped out one by one, leading the board to appoint an interim president in June 2021, who remains in place.

In June 2020, Jim Johnsen—then president of the University of Alaska system—was named the sole finalist for the University of Wisconsin system of presidency. But Johnsen withdrew after less than two weeks amid fierce criticism of his leadership in Alaska. The UW system then appointed Tommy Thompson, a former governor of the state, as interim president in July 2020. The Board of Regents dropped the interim tag in February.

Despite these examples, failed searches are rare. Henry Stoever, president and CEO of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, estimates a 5 percent failure rate.

“Hiring a college, university, or foundation president or chief executive officer is one of the most important responsibilities of a governing board. The keys to a successful presidential search are to establish an inclusive search process and expectations,” Stoever said by email. “While it is rare, failed presidential searches do occur, which is why it is so important to establish an inclusive search process and expectations with prioritized stakeholders before the search begins.”

And there’s more than one way for a presidential search to collapse.

“The way we think about it, there are two kinds of failures for a search,” said Judith Wilde, research professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. “One is if nobody is hired. That’s clearly a failure. We also consider it to be a failure if someone does not last through their first appointment as president. It is, we think, happening more often than it used to.”

If the definition of a failed search includes a new hire who leaves the college prior to fulfilling their appointment, the examples grow by multitudes. Take, for instance, the departure of James L. Gallogy, who spent less than a year at the University of Oklahoma before stepping down in 2019, or F. King Alexander, who exited Oregon State University in 2021 after less than a year amid controversy over his mishandling of Title IX issues during his previous presidency at Louisiana State University.

The average term of a college president does appear to be shrinking, according to data from the American College President Study by the American Council on Education, which found that in 2016 the average president had spent 5.8 years in their present job, compared to 6.7 years in 2011 and 8.1 years in 2006. (A new ACE presidential survey with fresh data will be released next spring.)

Why Searches Fail

Explanations for why presidential searches fail are—like the candidates and the colleges themselves—unique. Executive searches tend to include a broad range of constituents who often represent their own interests, each jockeying for a position and urging the university to hire someone who aligns with their priorities.

“While it is rare, there are any number of reasons why a search may not result in a job offer,” Stoever said. “Oftentimes it is a breakdown somewhere in the search process, whether it’s not establishing the appropriate qualifications for candidates, not recruiting acceptable candidates, moving too quickly with the search process, or a disagreement between the search committee and board regarding the quality of the finalists . Sometimes a failure in a search exposes some deeper issue at the institution. Boards and search committees have to be on the same page every step of the way.”

Some academics say much of the blame falls on untrained search committees. In an effort to include a diverse representation of campus voices, universities pack research committees with students, faculty, staff and trustees, all with different goals, said Stephen Trachtenberg, president emeritus at George Washington University and a past research firm executive.

“There are people put on the committees who have no idea about the job,” Trachtenberg said. “You’ll have search committees for the president of the university, which will have a student on it, and the student has never managed anything bigger than a bicycle. Suddenly, they’re picking somebody to be the leader of a billion-dollar-a-year operation. Frankly, they have no capacity to do so, but it all has to do with symbolic and representative politics.”

Other academics argue that search firms deserve much of the blame for failures. Wilde said that the use of closed searches—in which finalists are not publicly named until the very end—is problematic, especially when it comes to researching candidates.

“The issue with using search firms is that they focus on having things remain very confidential,” Wilde said.

She added that that often means requiring everyone on the search committee to sign a nondisclosure agreement, which limits discussion about a potential president.

“The problem with that is the best due diligence, the best way to find out the background of a potential president, is through the faculty network,” she said. “Clearly, with these NDAs, the faculty network cannot be used.”

Wilde also argued that third-party search firms often fail to thoroughly investigate their own candidates. Additionally, search firms operating under the default of confidentiality can place the same candidates in multiple searches and search committees won’t know about it, meaning a lackluster candidate who doesn’t make the cut at one college for various reasons may get hired at another .

The very use of search firms in finding college presidents has mushroomed over the last 50 years, according to Wilde’s research. Combing through decades of presidential job ads, Wilde and a colleague found that in the 1975–76 academic year, only 2 percent of colleges used search firms to hire presidents, relying on localized search efforts instead. By the 2015–16 academic year, some 92 percent of colleges turned to such firms to find new leaders, which she thinks has contributed to a rise in failed presidencies.

Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, also expressed skepticism about the role search firms play, particularly when they emphasize a clandestine process.

“Search firms, in particular, will claim that they can’t get good candidates unless the search is highly secretive,” Poliakoff said. “That plays to the advantage of the search firm and the candidate. It doesn’t play to the needs of the institution. Now, sometimes there are instances where transparency is difficult, like when you’re trying to recruit the secretary of homeland security, but it’s not a good idea to shape policy around the exceptions.”

To Poliakoff’s point, those with ties to the search world stressed a closed process to protect candidates.

Stoever wrote that “current presidents seen as attempting to ‘jump ship’ could be in jeopardy of termination at their current institutions, even if they are not selected by the search committee. Making presidential searches public, especially at the beginning of the search process when there are a wide field of potential candidates, creates unnecessary risks that will often stop excellent and well-qualified individuals from applying for the positions. Given the uncertainty in the higher education landscape, we need the best of the best leading our colleges and universities.”

Trachtenberg considers transparency a balancing act with both advantages and disadvantages.

“The virtue of transparency is to reassure people who are frequently paranoid that something untoward is not happening behind their back,” Trachtenberg said. “The problem with transparency is that it keeps many candidates from participating in the search, because if it is revealed at the institution where they are serving that they are inquiring about possibilities elsewhere, that takes away from their ability to continue where they are if they don’t get the job.”

But, ultimately, some degree of transparency should win out at the end, he said. While many searches only present a single finalist who often goes on to secure the presidential appointment, Trachtenberg argues that colleges should present the final three candidates for the position as a sign of good faith.

When Searches Fail

If a search ends without a presidential appointment, colleges often restart the process, usually with an interim president in place. Sometimes the interim is then elevated to the presidency. But for the college trustees, the search committee and the search firms, failure can be mortifying.

Wilde noted that some search firms will slash the price of a second search if the first one fails.

“It behooves the university in some way to jump right back in with that same search firm, which, to me doesn’t necessarily seem like the best plan,” Wilde said. “If they didn’t succeed the first time, what are they going to do differently this time? Others change and go to a different search firm. Some wait for a little while, because they’re afraid that if it gets out to a lot of people that their search failed—and it will get out—that they won’t have people wanting to apply. So they wait for a while to let things calm down, let an interim try and get things stabilized, and then move on.”

Stoever suggested that the college’s governing body, the search committee and the search firm “need to determine what went wrong, correct the mistake, and try again.” That may also include revising the qualifications for the position and looking for candidates who match an updated job description, using either the same executive search firm or replacing it and beginning anew.

And Poliakoff cautioned against relying too much on status quo candidates. Oftentimes, colleges look to current presidents to fill their vacancies, despite an abundance of talent outside those ranks. He urged colleges not to shy away from taking a risk on presidents from outside academia.

“There are fantastic people out there who may not be coming up through the traditional ranks,” Poliakoff said. “The last thing that any institution needs, even when it’s been successful, is to be locked into the thinking of the past decades. We’re in a very dynamic, very challenging world.”

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