The stakes are high for a new university president. From the first day in office, his or her performance is closely observed, evaluated, and judged — by alumni, students, faculty, board, and staff. Questions swirl about fit, competence, and vision. Missteps are quickly noted.

Some presidents don’t succeed in this pressure-cooker environment and leave after a year or two, or their contracts are not renewed by the board. A failed presidential transition can set an institution’s goals back by years.  

So when Eastern University’s president, David Black, informed the board of his decision to retire after 15 years of service, these concerns rose to high importance for Delores Brisbon, vice chair of the board and chair of the strategic planning committee. “There were some on the board who wanted to go immediately to the search process, but I said, ‘We don’t know who we’re searching for,’” Brisbon says, reflecting on the deliberations that took place three years ago.

To oversee the process, the board created a transition committee that included board members, staff, and faculty. The committee planned a three-step process for the transition: assessment, hiring, and onboarding.

Determining direction

After the long and successful tenure of President Black, it was important to assess the institution and identify the future direction of the university before embarking on the hiring process. “We invited all constituencies to read the Chronicle of Higher Education’s ‘College of 2020’ concept papers,” says Tom Ridington, executive vice president at Eastern. Then they organized focus groups. “We asked what they thought and how the ideas should inform our search for a new leader,” says Ridington. “So many people answered the call that rooms were full and we had to add extra sessions.”

The focus groups were led by trustees, who also met individually with every member of the leadership team and then wrote a status report for each department. Brisbon says that the process helped trustees to become informed about all aspects of the university. “Some of what we learned was not surprising, but some was,” she says. “I would estimate that 35 percent of the position description was new information gained from the assessment process.”

Seeking a match

From those reports, Ridington drafted the presidential position description. “We didn’t pull it off the web or from a best practices book,” he says. “The position description came from how our people saw where things were going.”

Ridington says that drafting the position description was energizing. “Our people arrived well prepared, having read and reflected and considered their own context and point of view. It was impressive to hear my peers,” he adds. “We don’t nearly often enough get together and talk about these issues.”

After the board approved the custom position description, they proceeded with the time-consuming process of a presidential search, using the assessment as a tool to measure candidates at each step. Key areas of focus were enrollment management, fundraising, and operations.

In the end, the trustees selected Robert G. Duffett, who had been serving as president of Dakota Wesleyan University since 2000. During his tenure, Dakota Wesleyan added programs and locations, increased its academic profile, enhanced diversity, and expanded student enrollments. He completed the largest comprehensive campaign in the university’s history, exceeding $40 million, and he took a leadership role in advocating for greater government support of students at South Dakota’s private colleges.

Previously, Duffett had served as provost and academic dean at Ottawa University and as director of doctoral studies at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. He majored in psychology and Greek at Bethel College in Minnesota before earning an M.Div. from Bethel Seminary, a master of theological studies from Princeton Seminary, and a doctorate in organizational theory from the University of Iowa.

“We knew we had made the right decision,” added Brisbon. “We wanted someone with a commitment to our mission, and our process assured us that Bob was the best fit for Eastern.”

On the new president's right and left are two trustees who proved invaluable in his onboarding: Arthur W. Hill, former chair of the board, and Delores Brisbon, former chair of the strategic planning committee.

Preparing for day one

Duffett was appointed in November 2012, and within a couple of months, preparations began for his June 2013 start date. As the final step in the transition, Duffett’s onboarding was designed to enable him to hit the ground running on his first day. Each month, he traveled from North Dakota to Philadelphia for orientation.

During the transition months, his activities included:

  • Reviewing the assessment reports and supporting documents with each leader of management, the deans, the associate provost, the executive assistant to the president, and the executive assistant for board relations.

  • Speaking individually with each member of the board of trustees.

  • Meeting individually with senior officers to determine whether to make changes to the leadership team.

  • Attending receptions with key constituents and being introduced to the community.

  • Consulting with the outgoing president on transition issues and attending events and conferences together.

  • Discussing business operations with the interim provost, the vice president for finance and operations, and the senior vice president for marketing.

  • Touring the campus and facilities.

  • Holding conversations with faculty and students.

Questions for boards

  • Does our institution have a written succession plan—one that’s applicable both to emergencies and to planned retirements? Has it been approved by the board?

  • In a time of transition, how would we go about assessing the current state of our institution?Does that assessment need to take place before our current leader retires?

  • How can we use our institutional self-assessment to find the right fit for a new leader?

  • Based on the traditions and values of our institution, what are some of the ways we can honor outgoing leaders and celebrate the ministry of new leaders?

Each visit concluded with a debriefing discussion with board leaders.

“The board did a great job of analyzing the University’s situation,” says Duffett. “There were no surprises when I got to campus. I could see the institution’s strengths, and I knew where it needed to grow. One year in, I can say that everyone was honest with me.”

The process required the cooperation of Dakota Wesleyan University, which released its president for a significant amount of time. Most visits were five days, but once he spent a full 10 days away from his duties in South Dakota.

Primed for success

When Duffett actually started, his presence on campus was no longer a novelty. He was a familiar and welcome figure. His calendar for the first day wasn’t booked solid, because he had already met with many people and had heard their priorities. He didn’t need to spend his time learning where his office was, so he started right away on leading the university to its next phase of growth. “Bob knew everyone he needed to know, so it didn’t require board involvement,” Brisbon says.

First impressions are lasting, and new presidents are under a great deal of scrutiny. That’s why they need the help of an onboarding process. “Onboarding is not orientation,” says Brisbon. “It is preparation for leadership when they hit the ground.” She adds that inside candidates often have an easier time than outsiders. “They know where all the landmines are.”

Brisbon and Duffett’s advice for other boards: With the amount of time and effort involved in an effective transition, boards need to seriously consider succession planning. The stakes of a presidential transition are too high to risk a mediocre hire — especially when it can take as many as five years for a new president to get up to pace with fundraising. A bad transition can make that seven, and no institution can afford that in today’s competitive higher education environment.  

 A Joyful Noise
Eastern University's touring choir, "Turning Point," performed as part of Robert G. Duffet's inauguration, held at Philadelphia's performing arts center.

A key element of welcoming a new president is the inauguration. At Eastern University, Robert G. Duffett’s inauguration was scheduled for nine months after his start date, and it was the culmination of the transition process.

First, Eastern wanted to recognize its outgoing leader, David R. Black, for his contributions. “With David leaving after 16 years, we wanted to take care of him,” trustee Delores Brisbon explains. “It’s important not to injure someone who has served you well by shifting attention to the incoming leader too aggressively.” But Black was clear that he didn’t want a lot of publicity as he retired, so the board honored his wishes, planning intimate events rather than a large public celebration.

In contrast, the inauguration of Duffett was intended to make a statement about Eastern’s place in the Philadelphia region. To reflect this message, the board decided to hold the event at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, the downtown home of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

On April 4, 2014, Black assembled with Eastern trustees, executive leaders, deans, faculty, students, alumni, and guests as Duffett was inaugurated as the ninth president of the university. The Rev. W. Wilson Goode Sr., a respected former mayor of Philadelphia, prayed the invocation, and greetings were offered by a member of Congress, a state senator, and the current mayor’s chief education officer.

The program interspersed remarks with music, including the national anthem and the college hymn. The chair of the music department directed a student brass ensemble and a student choir. The culmination of the event was the installation of the president by board chair Arthur Hill.

To express his vision of Christian higher education, Duffett chose the theme of “Awakening to Destiny” for his inaugural address. “Our task today is to lift up those enduring theological and educational values that gave rise to Eastern’s founding, sustain us today and awaken us to new destiny,” he said. Relying on passages from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, he explained how the “meta-purpose, the end of all of our teaching, learning, service, faith, reason, and justice, is in the service of love.”

The performing arts center’s capacity didn’t allow the entire campus community to attend, so Eastern beamed the inauguration to all departments on campus. Using technology first adopted to broadcast sporting events, Eastern’s faculty, staff, and students watched at their desks and in large rooms with colleagues. From the care for the retiring president to the choice of location, Eastern’s presidential transition was marked by this combination of innovation and consideration. 

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