Presidential Searches and the Discovery of Organizational Goals

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  • Presidential Searches and the Discovery of Organizational GoalsAuthor(s): Robert BirnbaumSource: The Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 59, No. 5 (Sep. - Oct., 1988), pp. 489-509Published by: Ohio State University PressStable URL: .Accessed: 19/12/2014 11:19

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  • J: Robert Birnbaum

    Presidential Searches and the Discovery of Organizational Goals

    Recent analyses of the literature on administra- tive succession [13, 36] indicate that there is no consensus on the basic question of whether changes of leadership reduce organizational per- formance, improve organizational performance, or have no effect upon organizational performance at all. In general, output data drawn from complex business, governmental, and higher education organiza- tions [4, 26, 48] appear to suggest that on average succession hias only modest if any effects upon organizational performance.

    This leads to a major puzzle. Why do organizations pay so much attention to the succession process, even though changing senior ad- ministrators may on average not have major effects on organizational performance? What are the implications for the meaning of leadership if organizational performance does not change when leaders change [43]? A consideration of these questions in the context of higher educa- tion organizations should begin with a brief description of the process through which academic presidents are typically chosen.

    This article was first presented at the National Invitational Seminar on Leadership Research, Council for Liberal Learning of the Association of American Colleges, Wingspread, Wisconsin, April 23-25, 1987

    This document was prepared pursuant to a grant from the Office of Educational Research and Improvement/Department of Education (OERI/ED). However, the opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the OERI/ED, and no official endorsement by the OERI/ED should be inferred.

    Robert Birnbaum is associate director of the National Center for Postsecondary Governance and Finance and professor of higher education at Teachers College, Co- lumbia University. Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 59, No. 5 (September/October 1988) Copyright ? 1988 by the Ohio State University Press

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  • 490 Journal of Higher Education

    The Leader Selection Process in Higher Education

    The selection of a [president] should follow upon cooperative search by the governing board and the faculty, taking into consideration the opinions of others who are appropriately interested. The president should be equally qualified to serve both as executive officer of the governing board and as the chief academic officer of the institution and the faculty. ... He should have the confidence of the board and the faculty [1].

    Perhaps three to four hundred presidents of the thirty-two hundred colleges and universities in this country are replaced each year. The succession process is typically lengthy, involves large numbers of peo- ple, and absorbs a good deal of the energy of a campus. At the same time, the process of presidential selection in higher education has been characterized as "so haphazard as to be ludicrous," and it has been suggested that improvement in the selection process could make an important contribution to increasing the effectiveness of presidential leadership [18, p. 1].

    There is no single model that is universally followed, and differences may be seen based on institutional type, the reasons for the vacancy (resignation, death, retirement, or firing of a predecessor), or the tradi- tions of specific institutions. However, there are several studies and normative statements [5, 7, 18, 20, 41] whose ideas when combined provide a general sense of what actually happens and what is thought to be "good practice."

    The search process usually begins under the aegis of the board of trustees with the formation of a single search committee of perhaps a dozen persons including trustees, faculty, students, and occasionally representatives of other campus constituencies. The committee mem- bers are often either nominated or selected by the constituencies they represent.

    The first step of the prescribed process (and the one least followed in actual practice) is to appraise the institution's present condition and future prospects so that the committee can determine the characteris- tics of the president they seek. A list of qualifications is then prepared and the vacancy publicized through public advertisements and private inquiries. The resultant pool of nominees and applicants may number in the hundreds. Using the candidate's curriculum vita and other avail- able documentation as screening devices, the committee eventually se- lects perhaps twenty to thirty "plausibles" for further investigation.

    Additional information about the plausibles is collected by the committee through confidential letters or personal conversations with

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  • Presidential Searches 491

    referees and others familiar with the candidate's performance in pre- vious positions. Based upon these reviews, a group of perhaps five to fifteen "finalists" is selected who are asked to visit the campus and participate in interviews with the search committee (and sometimes with other individuals or groups as well). Typically the search commit- tee will then recommend to the trustees a select list of one to three persons, all of whom are considered acceptable, from which the board is to make the final choice. The median time between the forma- tion of the committee and the announcement of an appointment by the trustees ranges from seven to nine months, although searches have been reported anywhere from one day to two years in length.

    The succession practices of institutions of higher education differ significantly from those of business firms. For example, presidents of business firms are often personally selected by their predecessor, groomed and given explicit assignments in preparation for that role, and then promoted internally [14]. Although colleges and universities tend to fill administrative positions below the presidency through in- ternal promotions [38], college presidencies are more likely to be filled by external candidates [3, 23]. The selection process in higher educa- tion also takes longer, considers a greater number of candidates, and involves many more constituent groups than is typical in other organi- zational settings.

    The selection of leaders in colleges and universities may be different from that of other institutions because their environment and technol- ogy are different. In a following section we shall consider sequentially the steps of the presidential search process already noted and discuss the reasons they may be important to colleges and universities. Before doing so, however, it is important to understand the constraints within which the search process is conducted.

    Candidates and Vacancies Identifying plausible candidates. Institutions are most likely to se-

    lect as plausible candidates persons who have worked in similar institu- tions, whose previous institutions were as prestigious and preferably more prestigious than the one being searched for, who have had suc- cessful administrative and faculty experience, and who have had some previous association with the institution [3, 9, 23, 37]. Prestige is im- portant in presidential selection as well, and "search committees see the institution one comes from as dignifying or detracting from the status of their own institution" [21, p. 8]. These factors are likely to produce pools of candidates who have passed through a series of promotional

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  • 492 Journal of Higher Education

    filters and who have been extensively socialized in institutions similar to the one to which they aspire. Because of this, institutions are likely to find great similarities in many of the most critical characteristics of serious candidates. It is true, of course, that each candidate is different, and there will be a wide range of personalities, temperaments, and leadership styles. But compared to the important ways in which they are similar, their differences may be minor [29].

    Not only are plausible candidates likely to