Change Is Inevitable: Preparing for a Leadership Transition

According to the American Council on Education’s American College President Study, the frequency of presidential turnover is increasing, with more than half of presidents or chancellors intending to leave their positions within five years. These figures point to an urgent need for higher education institutions to prepare effectively and efficiently for the departure of their top executive – whether the exit is sudden or planned. While each scenario is unique, there are some universal considerations in preparing for a presidential change. Below are five of the most common questions we are asked about leadership transition planning. 

1.    When should a transition plan be created?

Transition planning is an ongoing process, beginning long before the current president leaves the institution. It can be challenging to think about new leadership when your current leader is performing well. But a comprehensive transition plan should be standard policy to mitigate risk and reduce reactionary decision making. Moreover, the plan should be reviewed on a regular basis to ensure it is current.

2.    Who should be involved in developing the plan?

A presidential transition warrants the coordination of several individuals to ensure a smooth process. Most colleges and universities charge the executive committee with studying the issue and recommending transition policy and procedure. It is strongly recommended that institutions establish a separate transition committee. In either case, the group would seek the input and guidance of various interested parties, including legal counsel, the communications officer, government relations personnel, the current president’s executive assistant and/or cabinet, and constituent groups, such as faculty, staff, students, alumni, and community leaders. Governing board policies and member contributions also must be respected.

3.    What factors should we take into consideration when establishing a transition plan?

First, it is prudent to take into account the potential reasons that a leader may be exiting. Perhaps the current president is planning his or her retirement or has accepted another position. It is also possible the board may be initiating a termination or non-renewal of a contract. Or the transition may occur suddenly, such as from an illness or other abrupt issue. It is crucial to develop a transition plan that speaks to each of these possibilities, as they will likely necessitate distinct actions with different timelines.

Some elements to consider include:

  • How and when decisions are made and executed during a presidential transition.
  • A timeline for appointing temporary leadership and the process for how that leader will be selected.
  • Legalities and requirements of the institution during a presidential search.
  • Assessment of the campus’ current climate.
  • Communications strategies for the varied scenarios under which the transition may be taking place.
  • The financial impact of a transition on the institution.

4.    Should we appoint an interim president during a transition?

A board may opt to identify an interim executive or elevate an internal leader to maintain continuity or even stabilize a campus during the transition process. This allows the board and search committee sufficient time – from six months to a year – to conduct a search for new leadership. Define the qualities and characteristics the temporary leader should have to guide the institution through this period of change. And be clear up front about whether this individual can be a candidate for the permanent position. In some cases, internal candidates may deter external candidates from participating in the process, reducing the diversity and quality of your pool. It also may pose a conflict of interest if the leader is faced with decisions that might benefit his or her candidacy during the interim period.

5.    What is the role, if any, of the outgoing President?

If the president is departing under positive circumstances, he or she may provide insights on the position and the institution that could strengthen the transition plan. Also, search consultants might want to visit with the sitting president to discuss the role from his or her perspective. However, it is best that a sitting president not participate on the search committee, so as not to inhibit a fair and equitable process.

While there is not a prescribed “To Do” list in the event of a presidential departure, trustees can create a transition framework that is meaningful and relevant to their institution. Transition planning is not a statement on the current leader or the state of the institution; rather, it is a sign of a healthy, responsible board, and it helps to ensure an outcome most beneficial to the organization and its constituencies.