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Text Governing boards below string puppet hands

Continuing our focus on governing boards for higher education organizations, let’s consider challenges trustees face. In this blog, we consider the selection of the CEO for higher education organizations.

CEO Selection

Clearly, one of the (if not THE) greatest responsibilities of trustees is selecting the CEO (president or chancellor). Although the process is heavily scrutinized when corporate boards select the CEO, the selection process is generally shrouded with secrecy. With universities, the level of scrutiny from faculty members, students, alumni, the press, and numerous other stakeholders creates challenges for trustees when selecting a CEO, challenges directors do not face when selecting a corporate CEO. Freedom of Information laws make the challenges in selecting a CEO greater for public universities than for private universities. Demands placed on trustees of public universities for an open process, including disclosure of candidates being considered and portions of the interview process made open to the public, result in currently employed individuals being reluctant to become candidates: the current CEO of University X is unlikely to become a candidate for the CEO position at University Y.

A review of finalists for CEO positions indicates relatively few lateral moves occur in filling CEO positions in universities. E. Gordon Gee is an exception; he is also an exceptional higher-education CEO. Gee’s university CEO positions include West Virginia University (1981 – 1985), University of Colorado (1985-1990), The Ohio State University (1990-1997), Brown University (1998-2000), Vanderbilt University (2000-2007), The Ohio State University (2007-2013), and West Virginia University (2013-present). Yes, Gee served as OSU’s president and as WVU’s president twice.

In an attempt to generate a viable set of qualified CEO candidates and to provide confidentiality in the selection process, many universities engage executive search firms to assist in the selection process. Doing so, however, does not eliminate controversies surrounding CEO selections. Indeed, an unusual outcome resulted when trustees engaged an individual consultant to assist in selecting the chancellor for the University of Mississippi; the consultant was chosen to be chancellor.

The selection process employed to fill the president’s position at the University of South Carolina is another instance of headline-grabbing criticism from students, faculty, and alumni. After engaging a search firm and trustees appearing to be nearing a selection decision, the governor intervened and the ultimate selection became far more controversial than it might have been, otherwise. Not very long in his tenure, the new president resigned following claims of plagiarism arising from a commencement speech he gave.

My alma mater recently engaged in a search for my successor’s successor’s successor. The finalists were an internal candidate who had served as provost and was serving as interim chancellor and three external candidates. One-half of the trustees favored the internal candidate and one-half favored one of the external candidates. The UA president favored the external candidate. Fortunately, unlike what occurred in some other states, the governor did not publicly endorse a candidate. After a prolonged period of time, the trustees “unanimously” voted to approve the appointment of the internal candidate. I know him well and believe he is fully capable of providing exemplary leadership for my alma mater. Hopefully, he will receive the support of all stakeholders because the state and the university need for him to be successful.

Other examples of controversial presidential searches include Ave Maria University, Bethune-Cookman University, Kentucky State University, Michigan State University, University of Central Florida, University of Colorado, University of Iowa, University of North Carolina, and University of North Dakota, among numerous others. Controversy accompanying the selection of the CEO seems to be endemic with searches in academe, especially among public colleges and universities. Although sunshine laws contribute to challenges public colleges and universities face, political influences have spawned much of the controversies in recent years.

Next Week’s Blog: Higher Education Boards—Part 2

One Comment

  • Avatar D. Lynn Johnson says:

    John: Your blog is on target. We faced a similar situation at the University of Tennessee as Trustees selected several Presidents over a six year period.. Part of the dilemma was no chancellor for the Knoxville campus with the President serving both as CEO of the system and chancellor.

    Those selected and served for only short periods did not have a Tennessee culture and failed to gain public support. Part of the problem was that trustees used a search firm that didn’t provide a list of candidates from which to select that had a similar culture even after separating the president and chancellor roles.

    A president who is CEO with multiple campus locations has a far different role than a chancellor at one location. So the problem at Tennessee was both an organizational one in addition to one of process.

    I shall remember your unsolicited advice for a solution in 2005 “select a president with Tennessee culture.” However, none of the recommended choices were even close to that quality!

    In hindsight, headhunter firms help avoid initial sunshine law aspects but seem to rely on academic qualities rather than managerial capabilities. It is many times difficult to find the right fit when selecting candidates. I tend to favor an internal process even though it may limit or exclude qualified applicants due to freedom of information laws.

    Hope all is well with you.

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