Notes on the presidential talk

Once again, the guests:

  • Chuck Denny: Former head of ADC Communications and veteran on many university search committees for college executives.

  • Jan Greenwood: Greenwood/Asher and Associates, executive search firm. Former college president and veteran of over 1,000 searches.

  • Mike McPherson: Economist and former president of Macalester College in St. Paul, and currently President of the Spencer Foundation, whose mission is improving education around the world.

Note: Below is a summarization of excerpted speaker statements, not a verbatim account.

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Is this an essentially tough time to get a leader?

Denny: Yes. Let’s restrict the conversation to public universities. State funding used to be 45 percent – now it’s down to less than 24 percent. Costs are running about twice the CPI. So we’re forced to drive up tuition.

Are the qualities that the college presidents need similar to those needed by a CEO of a public company?

Denny: The challenges are far greater, far more complex. If you’re a CEO of a public company, you have the authority to direct operations of the firm. That’s not the case if you’re the college presidents. The systems are sprawling. They’re reliant on the legislature and need political approval. You have a semi-autonomous body – the faculty, whose needs might be different from those of the institution. And you have the students. It’s a big stew.

Greenwood: The complexity of dealing with constituencies can’t be underestimated.

Are the various roles of president in contradiction with each other? How do you integrate them in the overall vision?

Greenwood: The vision thing is a trick question. You can’t win. You need one, but it can’t be different from the one held by the board. But you do need ideas.

Are risk-takers well-received by boards?

Denny: If you don’t bring the faculty along, you have a catastrophe on your hands. Institutions have their own goals and visions, and may not be consistent with those of a faculty member. That is a tough, tough deal.

If you need buy-in from so many groups, how do you get anything done?

Greenwood: You can’t just be a person with great ideas. You need to be able to build support and juggle needs of various constituencies. There are many situations where presidents have come in with great ideas, but can't push them through.

Do a lot of people want the job?

Greenwood: Actually not a lot of people want the job. There used to be.

Does the open nature of the search limit the ability of presidents from other universities to apply?

Denny. That’s been a sore point here, considering the publicity that Minnesota law allows. If it has become known that working presidents are looking, it reduces their credibility at their institutions. And when we do references, for confidentiality reasons we’re limited to just the references they’ve put down. We can’t go get the full picture from other sources.

Greenwood: Example: In one secret search, a board could interview 18 candidates. A public search found only one. Some college presidents have lost large donations because word came out that the presidents might be leaving.

What about looking internally for candidates?

Denny: There aren’t many mechanisms for bringing people up into such leadership positions. You’d hope there would be chairs who’d become deans, provosts and then candidates. And there are some like that. But the problem is that today in Minnesota, the financial situation is so acute, if you’re an insider today you carry a lot of insider knowledge and a lot liabilities and allegiances. Someone who comes from the outside unencumbered by these allegiances might be a better bet.


Why are some colleges tapping those from outside higher ed?

Greenwood: Do they want those from the outside? Yes. But do the outsiders ultimately end up with the position? Rarely. It’s the culture, financial struggle, etc. of universities that’s the issue. It’s not a time when higher education wants to take a risk. You do see it on occasion, though.

Do corporate models work in the higher-ed world?

Denny: No. They’re two distinctly different models. Running a university is like herding cats, whereas a corporation is like a precision drill team. I suspect that a corporate model would lead to a frustrated executive. That’s because the essence of a university is its faculty. You cannot cross them. They are driven to look for recognition in their own field. It’s a singular drive.


When you took over at Macalester, what skills did you have and need?

McPherson: First, a small liberal arts college is different from a public university, so I wouldn’t generalize. I hadn’t had much experience with fund-raising, so I needed a crash course in that area.

Did you find that colleges want change but have constituencies that are resistant to change?

McPherson: We’d gone through a period of great change with a leader who’d made a big difference. We needed to think deeply about where to go next. I thought I had a different style from my predecessor, and it was to the good. It depends on the institution and the situation. Sometimes you need someone who will absolutely take charge, butt heads and push things through.

What questions should be asked of candidates – but rarely are?

McPherson: I haven’t found a tremendous reluctance of search committees to ask tough questions. The challenge is to get beyond the boilerplate answers and get specific. Tell us about experiences. Tell us about the time you had to deal with employees who were unethical, for example, or an occasion where you made a big mistake and had to deal with consequences. You’ll get a different level of response.

Denny: A corporation doesn’t have a committee. It has an HR department that identifies candidates, but those candidates are asked questions by a slew of different people over 2-3 days. That’s different from sitting in front of a dozen board members who have a set of prepared questions. (The university approach) is a faulty mechanism.

McPherson: All members of a search committee should see themselves as trustees for the future of the institution as a whole, not just of the small constituencies to which they individually belong.

How do you view the selling off of college assets to raise money? It seems like an easy fix to say, “Hey I raised all this money by selling off the fine china.”

McPherson: You should get zero credit for raising money that way. That’s not raised money. It’s a reallocation of resources. Higher ed is in a permanent state of crisis. The trends of declining state support, higher tuition and such are 20-year trends. We have to get beyond looking for quick fixes – and look at the years beyond. It’s a tough challenge.

It’s highly suspect that in 150 years or so, we haven’t had a female president of the University of Minnesota. Are there enough women or people of color running higher-ed institutions?

Denny: The committees I’ve been on have had a sense that we wanted a balance of gender and race. We’re not always successful in finding that in the general pool. Even if we are, your female or minority candidate might not make the final cut. You make priority choices. At St. Kate’s we were able to find great female candidates, but we were working in a very specific sector.

McPherson: It’s heartening to see that the number of female presidents has grown nationally, but there’s still a long way to go. Getting more people of color is a bigger challenge. This historical legacy weighs heavily. There are still problems of stereotyping, of holding such people to a higher standard than others. But there’s progress in that area as well, and it’ll continue.

Former University of Minnesota President Mark Yudof is on the Time Magazine list of top college presidents, and he’s in California. Is it time for another personality like Mark Yudof?

Denny: Possibly. Yudof came, said he had five things he wanted to do, he did them, and left. There’s something to working only as long as you have an agenda – and not overstaying your time. That might take 5-10 years, though.