Ambrose, who became chancellor of Henderson State University in Arkansas two months ago, dropped out of college and ran a nonprofit after two university leaders in 2018. But he returned to the process of finding so different that he felt as if he had experienced it for the first time.
“It’s not the same job they would hire me to do in 2018,” Ambrose said.
The last few years have brought a growing list of challenges for even the richest and most selective institutions: pandemics, widespread policy response, declining student numbers and public inquiries about the value of the university. At some universities, the election of a new president may be an existential decision.
“Even in well-established institutions, the stakes are higher,” said Robin Mamlet, chief partner of the search company WittKieffer.
As a result, some boards have changed their search criteria. Today, they are often looking for someone risk-tolerant who is willing to bring about fundamental change. At the same time, board members, who usually come to work with business experience and political ties, may also feel better equipped to elect a president without the input of teachers, staff and students.
Presidential candidates are also increasingly selective about the types of universities they want to work at, several new campus leaders said, as they demand a clear picture of the institution’s finances and board expectations.
“At a time when the landscape is changing, I wanted to be in an institution where the board was wide-eyed in terms of challenges,” said Susan Wente, who became president of Wake Forest University in July 2021.
“Presidents must be able to knit and dodge,” she said. “It’s certainly a harder job, but it attracts people for whom it’s exciting.”
Kyle Farmbry, who became the new president of Guilford College on January 1, said growing financial and political pressures on higher education required new leaders to be more strategic than in the past and to have an entrepreneurial mindset.
Even in well-established institutions, the stakes are higher.
He said: “You have to be someone who believes in the value of higher education. That will not change because of the crisis. “
For Ambrose, the goals of revitalizing the Henderson State rural campus in Arkadelphia and improving the study experience were part of the attraction of the new job.
When Ambrose saw his colleagues handling the worst pandemic, he felt he should still try to contribute through services.
“I was amazed at what leaders were doing for their communities,” he said, “and moved by what the students had to experience, and I felt a little guilty as I sat on the edge.”
Significantly more university presidents resigned last year than in 2020, with some acknowledging the myriad pressures and crises that led to their decisions.
“The last two years have been a challenging and intense journey,” he said Steven C. Currall announced his resignation in July after serving as president of the University of South Florida. “The intensity of the last two years has burdened my health and my family.”
According to Chronicle data, 107 presidents announced their resignations in 2021. That is much more than about 80 presidents who announced their resignations in 2020, but less than 123 announcements in 2019. The data only include retirements and resignations that ran in chronicle’s Bulletin. The figures do not include presidents who have been forced to resign, have been left under a cloud of controversy, or have raised health concerns.
The college internship at WittKiefer launched a record number of searches each month from July to October last year (not all for presidents), Mamlet said, and hired 18 new employees to handle the increased demand.
Sally Mason, a consultant for the University and Iowa University Board of Trustees and a former president of the University of Iowa, said the board said, “they invest a lot in this person and would like to know that they are physically fit.”
Wente, who was province and interim rector of Vanderbilt University before her appointment to Wake Forest, said she and other candidates for leadership were asked to undergo psychological tests. This includes consulting with a mental health professional who can evaluate things like leadership style and ability to build relationships, she said.
The results are shared only with the head of the search committee, Wente said. The process may be intimidating, but she used the results to try to improve her own leadership, she said.
Candidates also ask more difficult questions to search commissions and boards. Mason said the candidates are now more interested in the financial situation of the university, so that they are not surprised when they start a new job.
If college relies heavily on dollars for tuition, “and enrollment drops sharply and you don’t ask to change the budget model, you’ll be in a world of pain,” Mason said.
Potential presidents are also examining the culture and climate of the institution, Mason said, including whether the board is functioning.
Wente, the first woman president of Wake Forest, said she wanted to ensure that board members were united in purpose and vision and had a realistic view of the institution’s future. She also considered the search process itself, she said, including how transparent the search was and how faculty and students were accepted.
The last two years have been a challenging and intense journey.
In addition, she would only consider job offers from institutions that reflect her own values and where she would not be seen as a sign of diversity.
Kevin R. McClure, an associate professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, said the growing list of job requirements could make it difficult to find a good match between what the board wants and what the candidate really can. to add.
In addition, increased scrutiny by boards and candidates is a sign that the scope for management errors is shrinking.
“There may not have been so many screenings in the past because we’ve given leaders more room to learn at work,” McClure said. “The fact is that the boards are not giving this space now, and neither are the campus’ constituencies.”
Most troubling, McClure said, is that as the president’s skills shift from academic leader to manager, the search process may be even less transparent than it is. Boards, often made up of people with business backgrounds and political ties, can rely on their own experience in selecting a leader who has similar skills and experience, he said, while excluding faculty members with experience in education and research.
David Maxwell, an AGB executive and consultant and former president of Drake University, said the board learned during the pandemic that they would resist making decisions without the involvement of a wide range of components. Similarly, the criteria for finding leaders should be the culmination of talks with campus stakeholders, Maxwell said.
“The crisis is a miserable time to find that your management structure isn’t working.”
Audrey Williams June contributed to this report.