Choosing a College President in Times of Crisis

July 13, 2020

person looking through binoculars between two stacks of books

American higher education is facing an extraordinarily difficult academic year as the economic crisis sparked by the global pandemic calls into question how colleges and universities operate. The pressure will put many residential liberal arts college in deep distress from which a significant number will not recover.

Facing an existential crisis, governing boards of trustees should ask whether they have the right leadership to weather these challenges. Does their current leadership have the right mix of strategy, operational knowledge, and financial expertise to shepherd the college or university through this crisis?

If the answer is no (or their president has recently resigned or retired), they should be taking immediate action to secure the leadership that can save them.

Time, tradition, precedent not on colleges’ side

Higher education must quickly adapt to the remarkably different environment caused by the pandemic. One immediate change must be in how they handle the elongated presidential search process. Who and how they choose may be the most important decisions that boards can make in the near future. Time, tradition, and precedent are no longer on their side.

The tradition-driven, consensus-building presidential search process — usually undertaken over 12 to 15 months and involving in-person stakeholder consultation and interviews — no longer serves colleges and universities that cry out for new vision and strategy to adapt and survive as their financial and enrollment needs collapse around them.

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This article a synopsis of “The Responsibility of Choosing a College President in Times of Crisis,” written by Brian C. Mitchell and published in the July-August 2020 issue of Trusteeship, the magazine of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. The article is available to subscribers on the AGB website. If you would like a copy, please email your request to Brian

Originally published on July 13, 2020 on Edvance Foundation.

Brian C. Mithell. Founding partner of Academic Innovators, a solutions company. Author of How to Run a College. Former president of Bucknell University