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The Transition to President

Preparing college presidents for the promise and pitfalls of their new leadership role

July 22, 2006

Leadership transitions are stressful for both the new president and the institution. In her chapter, "Entering the Presidency," Harvard Graduate School of Education Senior Lecturer on Education Judith McLaughlin describes how the successful management of transitions can increase the likelihood of an effective presidential tenure.

"Like a diver poised at the end of a diving board, the new president can make a graceful dive or do a belly flop during the period of entry into the presidency."

To describe the mind-set of the college or university president embarking on his or her first presidency, I often use the analogy of a person standing at the end of the high diving board for the first time. This person has probably dived off lower-level boards many times before, and has mounted the ladder to the high dive enthusiastically and energetically, eager to take on this new level of skill and thrill. Yet, as anyone knows who has ever stood at the end of a high diving board, the water below seems very deep and very far away For the diver now sees not only the surface of the water, but all the way down to the bottom of the deep end of the swimming pool.

At that moment, poised to dive, the diver feels both excitement and fear. While realizing that the sensation of soaring through the air can be exhilarating, the diver is also aware that this flight can be frightening. The possibility of a belly flop looms. And not only will an awkward dive draw attention because of the size of splash (whereas a smooth dive will go largely unnoticed), a belly flop off the high dive can be painful.

New presidents find themselves in much the same situation as this diver. Although the great majority of presidents have risen through the ranks of academic administration, and the remainder have been appointed because they have demonstrated talent and skills in other arenas, in assuming the college or university presidency they are taking on a greater challenge, with both increased opportunities and heightened personal risks. They were selected as presidents precisely because they had been successful. Yet, as new presidents, they find themselves at much greater risk for failure than ever before in their careers. For, as they certainly realize, many presidents are not beloved, and some leave their posts not entirely by choice.

Furthermore, post presidential appointments can be difficult to find. Whereas vice presidents or deans — no matter how lackluster their performance — can usually locate other positions, in moves up, down, or sidewise, ex-presidents find their prospects more severely constrained. Presidents who are perceived to have failed (or, almost as damaging, to have been controversial) will find most doors to other presidencies closed. Even a return to the vice presidential level is often difficult to negotiate, as many college presidents are reluctant to hire a former president out of concern that this person will behave like he or she still is the chief executive.

For most new presidents, the presidential post represents the pinnacle of a career.... It represents an opportunity to assume responsibility for an entire educational enterprise, to make a difference in a world which they value. 

But if the risks facing new presidents are daunting, the prospective pleasures of the job beckon. For most new presidents, the presidential post represents the pinnacle of a career. Although it is not a job prospect they entertained until well along in their careers (after all, not many grammar school youngsters answer "college president" to the question of what they want to be when they grow up), the job of president, once considered, becomes increasingly enticing. It represents an opportunity to assume responsibility for an entire educational enterprise, to make a difference in a world which they value. As the presidents who have contributed to this volume attest, the presidency is an invigorating, rewarding, and always interesting post.

Presidents face their new venture, then, not unaware of the perils before them, but eager for this challenge. The institutions that receive them have similarly mixed reactions. In the first part of this chapter, we will note what is at stake for each partner in this interplay between individual and institution. Next, we examine several reasons presidencies sometimes don't work, examining the most common causes of belly flops. Finally, we will identify some practices that can increase the likelihood of presidential success. The data for this chapter are drawn from formal interviews, informal conversations, and correspondence with new presidents and the trustees and campus constituents who work with them.

Excerpted with permission from Leadership Transitions: The New College President, Judith Block McLaughlin, Editor, New Directions For Higher Education, Number 93, (Jossey-Bass, 1996). 

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