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What’s your process for hiring a new president? Many boards these days rely on consultants or executive search firms to identify candidates, vet their qualifications, gauge their interest, and make recommendations.


The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published an article about the University of Maine at Presque Isle, where Raymond J. Rice was hired as president without outside help. In this situation, the decision was made a little easier since Rice had been serving as the school’s interim president for a year, and he had been a part of the university for 20 years. He was a known factor. So the chancellor suggested to an array of stakeholders — including faculty, students, and board — that the whole search process could be curtailed by simply confirming Rice in the job he was already doing.

Every presidential search begins in unique conditions. Every organization is unique; the reasons for the president leaving are unique; the cultures they leave behind are unique; and, most importantly, the needs of the school going forward are unique. So Presque Isle hardly represents an approach that can be adopted by everyone, but the story does create an opportunity to assess different approaches to finding new leadership.

One point the article raises is the cost of hiring consultants. A formal executive search takes time and costs a lot of money. According to the article, “A 2016 study of 61 contracts between public colleges and search firms found the average cost was $79,000, with a high of $160,000. Nearly half of the agreements tacked on indirect expenses or ‘administrative fees’ of $2,000 to $30,000.” That’s no small amount, especially if that expensively vetted president is recruited by another school two or three years later.

Executive search firms are a valuable resource, however. You certainly get what you pay for. A national search is a huge undertaking, and a school would be asking a lot of its board and search committee to tackle that job without some help. Some boards may simply not have members with enough time or experience to take on the job without professional assistance.

Interestingly, one of the consultants cited reported that boards are asking for particular services, farming out only part of the job to a firm:

Although conducting a presidential search without a firm is still unusual, some colleges are limiting the involvement of the consultants, said Roderick J. McDavis, with AGB Search. "The biggest area where people want our help is on referencing and background checks," he said.

A final takeaway is that once again, communication is essential, regardless of how the process is undertaken or whether you need a new president or not. In the case of Presque Isle, the fact that the university community wholly supported Rice was an important part of the story.

I can’t do justice to the whole article here — there’s reference to an excellent report by the Aspen Institute on strengthening leadership in higher ed. So if you have an online subscription to The Chronicle of Higher Education, read "Rethinking the Presidential Search: Why some colleges skip hiring consultants and a national search." 

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