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Presidential Searches: Taking Risks

Presidential Searches: Taking Risks
And Reaping Rewards 

Ask any executive search firm, chair of a presidential search committee or chair of a board of trustees to name the most important quality, attribute or skill needed for today’s college president and if honestly given, the answer will be “the ability to raise money.” They will give passing lip service to qualities such as leadership, communication and organizational skills, vision, effective managerial and administrative skills, and the ability to interact with diverse campus and community constituencies and to articulate the institution’s mission will also be mentioned as highly desirable qualities.
Not to minimize any of these skills and traits, but in reality and given the dire financial straits that most colleges and universities find themselves in today, the general consensus is that the ability to raise lots of money is paramount. We would in fact be hard pressed to name a president who was a highly successful fund-raiser who didn’t enjoy a long tenure at his or her respective institution.
This financial reality, in combination with the erroneous perception that African Americans and other minorities can’t possibly be great fund-raisers, has led many a presidential search committee to make a costly blunder in their recruiting and hiring decisions.
I thought about this recently when I heard that Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson was in the throws of an unprecedented $1 billion campaign for her Troy, N.Y., campus. This comes on the heels of the unprecedented $360 million anonymous, unrestricted gift she received a few years ago (see Black Issues, March 29, 2001). And think about the $100 million gift that Brown’s Dr. Ruth Simmons recently announced (see Black Issues, Oct. 7). And in this edition, you will read about how Howard’s Pat Swygert just pulled in a $71 million technology gift and North Carolina A&T’s Dr. Jim Renick recently announced that Greensboro will receive a significant financial windfall as a result of his luring a coveted research center. In each of the aforementioned examples, a bold and risky decision was made to hire these leaders. Drs. Jackson and Simmons were the first women and African Americans to head their prestigious institutions. And Swygert and Renick brought no previous HBCU experience with their appointments.
These and other examples too numerous to mention should put that old myth to rest that minorities and women can’t bring home the bacon. They also confirm that well-reasoned risk-taking is needed in filling college presidencies.

Frank L. Matthews
Publisher/Editor in Chief

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