Presidential Searches and the Discovery of Organizational Goals

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<ul><li><p>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</p><p>Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms &amp; Conditions of Use, available at .</p><p> .JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact</p><p> .</p><p>Ohio State University Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to The Journalof Higher Education.</p><p> </p><p>This content downloaded from on Fri, 19 Dec 2014 11:19:03 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>J: Robert Birnbaum </p><p>Presidential Searches and the Discovery of Organizational Goals </p><p>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. </p><p>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. </p><p>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 </p><p>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. </p><p>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 </p><p>This content downloaded from on Fri, 19 Dec 2014 11:19:03 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>490 Journal of Higher Education </p><p>The Leader Selection Process in Higher Education </p><p>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]. </p><p>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]. </p><p>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." </p><p>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. </p><p>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. </p><p>Additional information about the plausibles is collected by the committee through confidential letters or personal conversations with </p><p>This content downloaded from on Fri, 19 Dec 2014 11:19:03 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>Presidential Searches 491 </p><p>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. </p><p>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. </p><p>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. </p><p>Candidates and Vacancies Identifying plausible candidates. Institutions are most likely to se- </p><p>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 </p><p>This content downloaded from on Fri, 19 Dec 2014 11:19:03 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>492 Journal of Higher Education </p><p>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]. </p><p>Not only are plausible candidates likely to be similar in terms of experience, but they are likely to be similar in terms of their perceived effectiveness as well. The problem of discriminating between such can- didates has been referred to as "selecting at the right tail" [24] - that is, the extreme right hand portion of the bell-shaped normal distribution curve. Most such candidates will be well qualified. It is possible that there will be differences in the fortunes of the campus based upon which candidate is selected. But the differences between candidates are usually so small, and the effects of external variables so large, that it is rarely possible to predict reliably beforehand the consequences for the campus of selecting between the top candidates. </p><p>Social matching. It is common to consider succession as a process in which a search is conducted to fill a vacancy. But looked at from the perspective of the candidate, it is also an opportunity to further a career. Indeed, both perspectives are valid, and it is useful to think of the pro- cess as a social match between candidates and vacancies. Candidates gain reputations as a consequence of their performance in previous positions. Vacancies (that is, the unfilled presidencies of specific insti- tutions) also gain a reputation in terms of their desirability and their ability to satisfy the needs of those filling them [31, 43]. </p><p>The search process serves as a forum within which vacancies and candidates assess each other's suitability for a social match. From the perspective of each, the available information on the other is limited and imperfect, thus injecting the possibility of considerable error into their assessments. In addition, the mixed-motive nature of the negotia- tions between candidates and vacancies limits openness and encour- ages impression management behaviors on both sides that make accu- rate assessment even more difficult. A good deal of the search is ritualistic in nature, and traditional academic norms of courtesy and civil discourse often preclude the asking of important questions. "The courtship is very polite" [22, p. 6], and this may lead to incomplete disclosure on both sides. The institution is anxious to secure the best candidate and in an effort to increase its attractiveness may inadver- </p><p>This content downloaded from on Fri, 19 Dec 2014 11:19:03 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>Presidential Searches 493 </p><p>tently (or sometimes deliberately) mislead them about matters such as campus finances or relationships [19]. The candidates are also anxious to present the strongest appearance and may misrepresent their inter- ests or accomplishments in an effort to do so. </p><p>Considered either as a process for filling vacancies or as one for advancing careers, the search appears at first glance to offer almost unlimited opportunities for choice. But viewed as a process of social matching, choices become severely constrained. Both vacancies and candidates can plausibly consider only a match that at least maintains (and preferably increases) their reputation, and this mutual interest in reputational enhancement sets constraints that severely limit the posi- tions to which a candidate may aspire and the candidates to which a vacancy may prove attractive. There is thus a process of self-selection that serves to limit the participants in a potential match. There should be little overlap, for example, between community college candidates or vacancies and those of research universities. </p><p>Socialization, self-selection, and filtering significantly reduce the variability of plausible candidates; difficulties in assessing perfor- mance due to limited information and impression management in- crease the difficulty of selecting among them. Because differences be- tween plausible candidates are likely to be small, similar candidates may appear to be different, and different candidates may appear to be similar. This matching of candidates and vacancies may therefore in some ways resemble chance [30]. </p><p>The processes and the outcomes of presidential searches may thus involve far less rational behavior than the normative models suggest. What might be the functions of each stage, and what may be their important institutional consequences? </p><p>Succession Processes and Organizational Consequences It seems reasonable to postulate that in order to be considered suc- </p><p>cessful, succession processes of effective organizations would lead to certain outcomes. For example, because succession may lead to dis- ruption [3, 14, 41], a good selection process would minimize organiza- tional instability. It would reinforce important organizational values, confer legitimacy and therefore authority on the selected leader, and increase acceptance of the leader's initial actions. It would permit selec- tion of a leader with the necessary instrumental skills and cultural values without imposing unrealistic cognitive requirements on the search participants. It would help an organization "make sense" of its </p><p>This content downloaded from on Fri, 19 Dec 2014 11:19:03 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>494 Journal of Higher Educati...</p></li></ul>


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