College and university presidents are serving shorter terms—which means institutions are dealing with transitions in leadership more frequently.
These types of high-stakes transitions aren’t always easy. Institutions face ongoing and complex issues, and it takes time for a new president to get up to speed. But a poorly executed transition can leave a new president vulnerable to losing the campus’s trust.
Here are a few ways incoming leaders can get started on the right foot, based on advice from current and former presidents.
1: Connect with the outgoing president
Imagine if, before taking office, a college’s incoming president spent months shadowing the outgoing one, learning the ins and outs of the responsibilities he or she will soon face. This has not been the norm in higher education. But when the University of Dayton (UD) selected Eric Spina as the new president in 2016, that’s what they did.
Spina worked alongside the previous president for several months before assuming his role. Leaders say the overlap created a smoother transition; when UD’s new president started his tenure, he fully understood the institution’s goals and challenges.
It is critically important to have a strong, respectful working relationship with your predecessor, advises Spina. Presidents (whether incoming or outgoing) must remember to put aside their ego and keep their love for the institution at the center, he adds.
Even if there’s not an overlap period, it’s still valuable for outgoing and incoming presidents to communicate. “The outgoing president can be a fantastic resource,” says Jessica Kozloff, president emerita of Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and senior consultant at Academic Search.
2: Ask the campus community for their insights
Transition teams, which usually include the board chair and senior administrators, are an invaluable resource for incoming presidents, writes Mark Rowh for University Business. New presidents can ask these leaders for context on school culture, public relations, past projects, and current initiatives, he recommends.
New presidents should focus on building strong relationships with system leadership, such as the chancellor, locally elected board, or governor-appointed board, according to research from EAB‘s Community College Executive Forum. Presidents should align their relationship-building approach based on their particular board structure. New presidents with a chancellor, for example, should set up regular meetings and learn the system’s priorities before the first meeting.
They can also lean on trustees to help manage the transition, says Clara Lovett, the former president of Northern Arizona University. Trustees can help identify and clarify the institution’s needs and act as advisors, she adds.
3: Don’t rush the process
If you are entering the presidency from outside the institution or outside of higher ed, you’ll likely need time to get up to speed, says Kozloff. Campus leaders need to realize that the “new president needs a honeymoon period of learning the culture,” says Kozloff, adding, “Expecting the new president to quickly make decisions, even in periods of crisis, is asking for failure.”
And before you make any changes—even if changes are needed urgently—you must get to know your new institution’s values, history, and character, says Spina. The campus will be more open to your changes if they feel authentic to the institution’s history and values.
Sources: Harris/Ellis; The Journal of Higher Education, accessed 8/28/19; EAB expert insight, 2/28/17; Rowh, University Business, 2/20/17; Rutherford/Lozano, Wiley Online Library, accessed 8/28/19; Carter, Education Dive, 11/9/16; Lovett, Chronicle of Higher Education, 11/6/16