7 Qualities to Look for in a College President

June 29, 2022 – Robin Mamlet, managing director, and Sheila Murphy, consultant, of WittKieffer wrote an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education on six essential qualities to look for in a college president. They were characteristics — such as a sense of emotional intelligence and an appetite for data and analysis — that search committees have identified time and again. Much has changed during the past few years, of course. In rethinking this topic and consulting with colleagues as well as sitting presidents, WittKieffer has identified a set of additional qualities that every campus C.E.O. should possess. What follows are seven interconnected traits essential to success in the top job on any campus.

No. 1: An ability to lead in this era of intense social activism. Even before the murder of George Floyd, the political tenor on college campuses was changing. Conversations between presidents and students, in particular, were increasingly strained and discordant. In the aftermath of Floyd’s murder, it became even more essential for leaders to be adept at encouraging civil discourse — especially regarding concerns about systemic racism or about campus buildings, statues, and monuments named after now-controversial figures.

No. 2: Expertise in crisis management. The pandemic has brought many institutions to a point of crisis. For others, this moment is less existential but no less crucial. Search committees are keenly aware that this is a defining moment, from which their institution will emerge either as stronger or…not. They seek leaders who can truly empathize, who not only care deeply about the people in the organization but can adeptly respond to their needs.

No. 3: Strong advocacy of a college education. Is the degree worth it? The realities of our post-COVID world have sparked renewed questions about the value of the traditional, four-year campus experience. A pervasive idea among more and more parents: If a student can find a good job out of high school, can’t that substitute for a bachelor’s degree? (“Why can’t my kids go to work at GM or Google and get a vocational education there?”) Indeed, a recent Georgetown University study found that the pay gap is narrowing between college graduates and the pool of people who are either high-school graduates or only have limited higher education.

No. 4: An optimistic, opportunistic view of partnerships.
Today’s savvy presidents, seize on partnerships in the spirit of entrepreneurialism and “coopetition.” Their framing is, “We’re in a position of strength and could become even stronger if we engage with our fellow institutions differently.” This new model is not about overcoming constraints, making course corrections, or plugging holes. It is about expansiveness and aspiration — doing something collectively that a single institution can’t do well on its own.

No. 5: A nuanced understanding of how to defend freedom of speech and ideas. Academe’s reputation as a marketplace of ideas — where freedom of expression is valued and protected — has been increasingly challenged of late. Activists on the political left argue that a college or university should not spend money or give voice or visibility to speakers whose ideas they deem abhorrent and antithetical, especially to such deeply held values as diversity and inclusivity. Meanwhile, when an institution rejects or disinvites guest speakers whose messages are said to promulgate hate and violence, or to hurt and devalue certain groups, activists on the political right rush to label it as a devotee of “cancel culture.”

No. 6: Skill at diplomacy. Fissures between trustees and faculty members have multiplied as both sides strive for what each sees as in the best interest of the institution. Many trustees (rightly so) believe we are in an unprecedented era that requires agility and quick, decisive action, while faculty members (rightly so) hold firm to the principles of shared governance, believing that additional perspectives and input lead to better outcomes, and asserting their right to weigh in on matters of institutional import.

No. 7: An ability to work fast. Higher education has to shift gears more rapidly than it used to. While academic tradition favors discourse, iteration, and inclusiveness, presidents today must make more decisions in less time. We see that playing out in presidential searches: More and more committees are looking for candidates who move quickly and intentionally toward achieving concrete goals. In today’s fast-paced and highly dynamic environment, pace matters. Some academics might label this “speedism” — the idea that faster is smarter and better — but, like it or not, it is a tangible reality of today’s higher education leadership that has crept in from the corporate world.

WittKieffer, based in Oak Brook, IL, assists hospitals, health systems, academic medical centers, medical schools and physician groups; biotech, pharmaceutical, diagnostics and medical device companies; colleges and universities and not-for-profit community service and cultural organizations with senior administrative recruiting assignments. With more than 100 search professionals nationwide, its consultants recruit CEOs, CFOs, COOs, CNOs, physician executives and other leaders.

Share This Article


Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments