Are You Presidential Material?
Mix together a small army of stakeholders, add a paper trail long enough to rival the feats of Lewis and Clark, season with enough anxiety to keep the campus counseling professionals busy for a semester or two and you have a recipe for the presidential search — one of the most practically and psychologically fraught processes that the modern campus faces.
Talk to higher education observers around the country and just about everyone can point to spectacular examples of presidential searches gone wrong — searches, that is, that failed to produce matches. But ask those same experts about those elusive qualities that combine to produce a “fit” between campus and candidate, and you’re likely to get only rueful sighs.
“If I knew the answer to that, I’d be making all kinds of money,” says Bill Hawkins, president and chief executive officer of Los Angeles-based The Hawkins Co., an executive search firm with 20 years of experience in the business of serving up top candidates for corporate, governmental and educational clients.
But he adds: “It’s tough — a tough process and a difficult environment. The array of issues is simply mind-boggling.” Hawkins proceeds to list a few: “The low tolerance of stakeholders, particularly state governments who have to answer to voters saying we want higher levels of accountability; accreditation problems; dwindling resources; and (for HBCUs) the competition for the best and brightest students.”
In such an environment, it takes a lot for a candidate to rise to the top, says Hawkins — and very little for that person to fall from grace once he or she has gotten the job. And yet there’s no shortage of people stepping forward to enter the lists: people with a self-described “passion and mission” to lead an educational institution.
ONE PATH TO THE PRESIDENCY
There’s what one might call the “traditional” path to the presidency. Most in higher education would describe it as a slow but steady climb through the ranks. The first step involves obtaining a “union card,” as one waggish Web manual for presidential aspirants describes it, meaning the Ph.D.
There are, of course, presidents who don’t have one, particularly as colleges and universities tap business professionals and politicians for their fund-raising and “friend-raising” skills — but it’s probably still safe to say that, while the paradigm may be shifting, the vast majority of presidents today have held deanships and vice presidencies at various levels, typically ending with a chief academic or chief finance position.
Dr. Rodney Smith describes just such a climb up the ladder at Hampton University as he prepared himself for his first presidency. In less than a decade, from 1992 to 2001, Smith rose from director of Hampton’s academic support unit to a deanship to the vice presidential ranks, serving successively as vice president for student affairs, vice president for administration and director of student planning, then finally as vice president for planning and dean of the graduate college.
By the mid-1990s, Hampton’s president, Dr. William Harvey, started urging Smith to think about a presidency of his own. “He was such an important factor,” Smith says, “always encouraging me and training me and talking to me” about the challenges Smith would face on the climb.
But even though Harvey has produced a virtual assembly line of presidents — nine in his 27 years at the helm of Hampton; 13 if one counts all the top executives produced by his shop in areas like banking and college athletics — Smith wasn’t so sure. Nominated for his first presidency at Talladega in 1998-1999, he withdrew his name so that he could continue to polish his skills at Hampton.
Smith continued to show remarkable restraint in other presidential competitions — sometimes withdrawing his name from consideration; other times entering the chase with a will. He first struck gold at Ramapo College of New Jersey, the No. 2 ranked public comprehensive school in the Northeast, which Smith steered through the worst financial crisis in the state’s history — a 20 percent budget cut — while reorganizing the senior administration, balancing budgets and creating revenue-producing programs that quadrupled fund balances.
Now, this native Bahamian, raised and educated in the United States, has left Ramapo to take a dream job, at the College of the Bahamas, a two-year institution that’s hoping to reorganize under his leadership as a four-year, doctoral-granting institution.
It’s a vastly complicated undertaking, involving acts of parliament to restructure the campus as a corporate rather than a governmental entity, not to mention issues of accreditation, fund raising to build new facilities, beefing up old programs, creating new ones — all the while promoting shared governance practices to convince the various stakeholders to invest their time and talent in every step of the process. But this time Smith knows he’s ready.
“The advantage I have is the tremendous mentoring I received [at] Hampton — plus my experiences at Ramapo College, where I did in three years what should have been stretched out to 10 — plus my network at AASCU,” the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, where Smith is a member of the African American Presidents’ Affinity Group and a mentor in the Millennium Leadership Initiative for increasing the numbers of presidents of color (see Black Issues, Aug. 26).
“Experienced presidents will always tell you that the second presidency is the best one,” Smith says. “By God’s will, this is my second presidency, and I’m looking forward to putting that to the test.”
THE SHIFTING PARADIGM
This is a second presidency also for Dr. Gloria Bromell-Tinubu. And though she’s only held the top job at Barber-Scotia College in Charlotte, N.C., since July of this year, she’s convinced she’s struck gold as well.
“I really believe in the law of nature,” says Bromell-Tinubu, an economist with a marked spiritual side. “I believe there are no mistakes, that everything is in divine order. I believe that everything that happened to pave my way (to Barber-Scotia) was supposed to happen, and this is where I’m supposed to be.”
Bromell-Tinubu is part of what Hawkins sees on the ground — and what scholars describe in higher ed journals — as the “new paradigm” for the college presidency. In one of those large historical shifts that periodically overtake college campuses, scholars say, the role of the president is once again changing. Once a rector, or spiritual leader, then a chief administrator, the financial crunch and howls for accountability are forcing presidents to become chief fund- and “friend”-raisers, through alumni groups, local community networks, legislators, government agencies and philanthropic foundations.
“It’s not enough now for people to spend their career in academia,” Hawkins says. “You can be dean of this, vice president of that, but now all of a sudden Hazel O’Leary”— a cabinet secretary under the Clinton administration — “is the person Fisk University is tapping as president.
“We’re seeing people come out of industry with tremendous skills in financial stewardship — which is not something that historically Black colleges have been good at. So the competitive environment is different — boards are not just looking at deans and chief academic officers any more,” Hawkins adds.
Bromell-Tinubu agrees. “I’m not your typical president,” she says, venturing to speculate, “Mine may even be the model that dominates in the future.”
Instead of rising through the rungs within an ivory tower, Bromell-Tinubu proved herself in the wider world. Though respected and widely published as an economist and chair of the department at Spelman College, she made her mark as CEO of a successful nonprofit and as a member of a series of corporate and governmental boards, culminating with a successful run for Atlanta City Council.
What Bromell-Tinubu thinks she brings to the table at Barber-Scotia is her deep understanding of “issues in the market, how to carve a niche, how to gain a competitive edge, how to innovate and be responsive to change. I ascribe to what Darwin says: It’s not the most intelligent or even the strongest that survives — it’s the entity that’s most adaptable to change.”
That experience of adaptability will serve Barber-Scotia well as it recovers from the blow of losing its accreditation, Bromell-Tinubu says. One must admit it certainly served her well in her quick recovery from the blow of losing her first presidency at Bethune-Cookman College.
Recalling the experience, she says: “I was selected in November. By January, it was over. It must’ve been the shortest presidency on record.”
Bromell-Tinubu was nominated by her minister, the Rev. Dr. Barbara King, then serving on the Bethune-Cookman board. From beginning to end, the process of being scrutinized and interviewed took more than a year. Bromell-Tinubu’s appointment was announced, but then unresolved contract issues emerged — job security and severance were the sticking points, Bromell-Tinubu says — and her “dream” appointment was derailed.
Her experience was a painful object lesson in the central importance of the contract in any presidential negotiation, notes Willie Tucker, a partner in Medley Newman Tucker Group, a premier West Coast search firm specializing in issues of diversity.
“All the issues of the base salary, signing bonus, pay or compensation incentives, publications, recruiting and, most importantly, the ‘back end protection’ or as some people call it ‘the parachute’— have to be resolved — and it’s all the more critical when the job is a dream come true,” Tucker says.
“It was because of Mary McLeod Bethune that I wanted that job. I connect so strongly with her. The idea of being at the school she founded with a dollar and fifty cents, to stand in her shoes and try to carry forward her mission was such an inspiration to me,” Bromell-Tinubu says.
But having to leave Bethune-Cookman didn’t mean she had to leave the dream behind — now, at Barber-Scotia, Bromell-Tinubu finds herself at the helm of Mary McLeod Bethune’s alma mater.
“Mrs. Bethune once said, ‘The drums of Africa still beat in my chest and won’t let me rest until every Negro boy and girl has a chance to prove their worth.’ And that is the mission of this college, a mission that connects to students like the one I once was: students whose parents had an elementary education, who couldn’t dream about college for themselves or dream that they could ever afford college for their kids.
“Working at a school like this is worthy of not sleeping at night. I don’t mind staying up late and getting up early to do the work that needs to be done here,” Bromell-Tinubu says.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE MISSION
That’s because when it comes to the presidency, it’s all about the mission, experts say.
“When you come across individuals going for the presidency rather than institution, then you see someone who is setting the stage for problems,” says Smith. Indeed, that philosophy was at the heart of Smith’s cautious approach to the search process.
“I always looked at the mission of the institution — and it had to match my interests and my passions. I have to believe with all my heart in the mission of an institution in order to put my soul into it,” he explains.
Thus, he found himself backing away from searches in three types of circumstances: when the mission was unclear, when the trustees didn’t seem fully cognizant of the challenges facing the school or when he felt he and his family weren’t a good fit for the school community.
“The key is if the family adjusts, the presidency works,” Smith says.
The mission is no less important for the institution conducting the presidential search. “Why, after all, are you having a presidential search?” asks Tucker. “Generally speaking,” he explains, it’s because a key part of the mission has been neglected. “The school is in a situation where either they thought the job should be outsourced, or it had to be outsourced because they didn’t have a succession plan,” he explains.
Study after study has confirmed that succession planning is one of the most important factors in protecting the mission and ensuring the long-term success of any entity. But whether one is dealing with higher education or multibillion-dollar corporations, “Presidents should, but they far too often don’t groom someone to take their place,” Tucker adds.
“Unfortunately, I would have to say that academia lags behind corporate America in terms of succession planning,” Hawkins says. And when institutions embark on searches, far too often, he notes, they’re not as realistic as they should be.
“Everyone says, ‘We want a Swygert,'” as in Howard University President H. Patrick Swygert. But their ability to attract a Swygert “may not be in line with reality,” Hawkins says. Similarly, institutions may issue a ringing call for change — but quail when that call is answered.
“We were involved when (former Virginia Gov.) Doug Wilder was selected for the job at Virginia Union and he asked for the resignations of everyone in his cabinet,” Hawkins said. “It was a symbolic gesture — he did the same thing as governor and only replaced a few people. But the people at Virginia Union protested: ‘This is going to destroy our history and tradition!'” Eventually Wilder withdrew his name from consideration and became one of the school’s strongest critics.
“I think the best thing an institution can do to ensure the success of a presidential search is to clearly articulate what the challenges are. That’s the area that causes the greatest amount of problems. Institutions must be realistic about what they can attract and, once they attract it, they must be committed to candid, open discussions,” Hawkins says.
And a little risk-taking wouldn’t hurt either. “There’s a parallel in professional sports, where they keep recycling the same old coaches. The guy was losing in St. Louis and now he’s losing in Baltimore,” Hawkins says. Something of the same thing happens in presidential searches.
He advises colleges and universities to look among their own, perhaps a bit further down the ladder and to look in nontraditional places.
“We did a recruitment and one of the finalists was a chief counsel at a huge institution. He had stellar academic credentials, a tremendous background, had succeeded at everything he had done. He decided after having raised kids and being comfortable in his job that he wanted to be a president. But people were leery.
“Frankly, I would much rather take a risk on someone like that. He might not succeed but it’s highly likely that he would,” Hawkins says.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com