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Changing the Presidential Guard

Changing the Presidential Guard
By Dr. James C. Renick

As someone who has had the good fortune to serve two institutions as chancellor, I have grown keenly aware of the need for institutions and their trustees to pay increased attention to presidential succession. The period between one administration and the next is a crucial moment in the life of the institution. Yet, in many cases, very little care is taken to ensure a successful leadership transition. Given the saliency of transitional planning in the political as well as corporate sector, it is truly amazing that colleges and universities do not provide structured transition support. Some have suggested that the length of an administrative “honeymoon” is directly proportional to the amount of time and care institutions spend on presidential succession. That is, the less time spent, the shorter the “honeymoon.”

Lately, the issue has been brought to the forefront with the many vacancies and/or abrupt departures of presidents at historically Black colleges and universities, as well as, predominantly White institutions. While most HBCUs make the transition from one administration to the next without any great disruption, too many of us have no succession plans at all, leaving our institutions to the “luck of the draw.” Without a comprehensive presidential succession plan, institutions are often not clear on the necessary institutional requirements for a successful transition experience and a successful presidency. All too often, the search for a new CEO becomes a beauty contest or a political circus. All one has to do is read the advertisements, many of which infer that the successful candidate “must be able to walk on water.” Yet, every organization is at a unique point in its history, and requires a set of skills that respond to both the institution’s needs and the times.

Increasingly, institutions are using professional search firms in order to enhance the search process. While search firms can and do provide a useful service, they cannot substitute for a comprehensive presidential transition plan authored by the board. Before instituting a search, the boards of trustees, campus constituencies, as well as alumni would be well served if they spent time discussing the real executive skill set (beyond the obvious) that would best serve the university or college. As a result of these discussions, expectations would be clear prior to the more public phase of the search. The board can then focus on ensuring that the appropriate candidate is selected.

Once a campus leader is announced, it is critically important that the board, the internal constituents and alumni articulate ways to support the new administration. The initial months of a presidency can and often do set the tone for a new administration. Savvy presidents with previous experience and/or the benefits of a national support network understand the importance of the first hundred days. In the first few months of their new administration, too many presidents find themselves navigating the minefields of their institutions without the benefit of critical institutional and political information and support. While new presidents’ academies can be of valuable service to new presidents, they often: a) come after the transition period, or b) cannot provide the participant with the necessary local knowledge useful for a constructive transition. A well-prepared transition team can provide a valuable service. This is as much an investment in the institution as it is an investment in the presidency.

Clearly, no amount of planning guarantees a flourishing institution or a successful presidency. However, in my experience, a carefully crafted transition plan will increase the probability of success in an era when we need our institutions and their leaders to be successful.

— Dr. James C. Renick is chancellor of North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro.

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