Anatomy of a Search

Four key players in the Spelman presidential-search process reflect on what went right

April 06, 2016

Spelman College
Mary Schmidt Campbell
In July 2014, Beverly Daniel Tatum announced her retirement after 13 years as president of Spelman College. Ten months later, the trustees named her successor: Mary Schmidt Campbell, dean emerita at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, who took office as president of Spelman last August. What follows is the story of the search from multiple vantage points — the chair of the board, the president of the faculty council, the chair of the search committee, and the new president — each offering lessons on what worked for the college and could work elsewhere.

Rosalind Brewer, board chair: Before we could select a new leader, we had to choose someone to lead the search. In academe, process matters, communication is key, and consultation is expected. Balancing those imperatives with the necessity of confidentiality in a presidential search requires deft political savvy, expert crisis-management skills, and above all else, deep academic, social, and emotional intelligence.

Spelman’s trustees knew the head of the presidential search had to maintain a clear vision to help identify the type of leader we needed. The chair also had to possess a deep respect for, and knowledge of, the campus constituencies to ensure that the process — in reality and perception — was as smooth, inclusive, and transparent as possible. We chose a chair who we thought possessed those skills: Celeste Watkins-Hayes, an alumna, a Spelman trustee, and a sociologist at Northwestern University.

A year before opening the formal search process, our board held a working retreat to discuss the future of higher education and what would be required to be successful in a changing landscape. We reviewed Spelman’s strategic plan and identified gaps that could preclude our success. We knew the next president had to be adept in leading the effort to strengthen those areas and continue our track record of educating influential women.

Building on our conversations, Watkins-Hayes designed a search process that was deliberate in leading the college through a series of listening sessions, encouraging people to discuss the opportunities and challenges facing Spelman and higher education at large. From that process, the search committee produced a leadership profile to identify and evaluate candidates and sought nominations from students, faculty, staff, alumnae, local citizens, former presidents and trustees, as well as leaders at other colleges, and in industry and government. A robust list of 300 candidates was compiled, and the process allowed us to have important conversations with diverse groups about the state of education and the state of Spelman.

A college president must drive a vision, constantly monitor organizational efficiency, and pay particular interest to the care and well-being of the most treasured customer — students. Our next leader had to be an effective fund raiser to ensure that students who lacked the means could afford to attend Spelman.

Selecting a college president is a cerebral, complex, and strategic endeavor. The board’s first major decision toward that effort — identifying the person to lead the search process — proved critical. This work led us to President Campbell, an innovative and experienced leader with a clear vision for what our institution needs to thrive as it continues to produce brilliant women who are changing the world.

Romie Tribble, Jr., faculty council president: To be successful, a presidential search must be understood as a moment to engage both the rigor and vigor of shared governance. Certainly the trustees are ultimately responsible for the presidential choice. But it’s the faculty who will live with the result, and a bad fit between president and faculty will result in negative fallout for everyone on the campus.

President Tatum’s retirement was announced in July 2014, and the trustees and the head of the presidential-search committee approached faculty about the search process in August 2014. The partnership that developed between the board and the faculty taught us several valuable lessons, ones that may be of help to other institutions embarking on a leadership transition:

  • Engage the faculty early and often in the search process. Watkins-Hayes met with Spelman faculty to discuss the search timeline and faculty representation on the committee. Those talks set the tone for the whole process. We didn’t assume that approaches adopted in past searches would suffice for this search and, conversely, we were relatively open to new ways of going about the process. For example, Spelman had only one faculty representative to the 2001-2 search while this search had three.
  • Encourage internal reflection and debate. A faculty committee drafted a white paper on shared governance that our new president has said proved invaluable during her first 100 days in office.
  • Keep the communication loop open on the campus. We held multiple sessions with the full faculty to allow people to talk about governance concerns and about expectations for the new leader. Their input played a role in both developing the leadership profile and identifying potential candidates.
  • Allow faculty representatives to be truly involved in the search. Our faculty representatives to the search developed interview questions linked to academic affairs, met with candidates, and offered thorough assessments on individual candidates. Throughout the process, it was evident that the search committee had invited, and relied upon, faculty expertise to assess candidates’ strengths and institutional fit. This level of inclusion and collaboration was no doubt aided by the fact that Watkins-Hayes was a faculty member herself.
  • Let faculty organize campus meetings between the finalists and the faculty. Allowing the committee’s faculty representatives to bring our colleagues into the final stage of the process strengthened both our perspective and legitimacy.

Celeste Watkins-Hayes, chair of the presidential search committee: I am an alumna of Spelman and vice chair of its board, neither of which made me an unusual choice to lead the search. What did: The fact that I am a professor.

Typically, faculty members are not the ones tapped to chair a presidential search committee. That job usually goes to a trustee from the private or government sectors. So what did I, as a faculty member, bring to the task?

Among my many responsibilities as chair was to help build the best candidate pool possible, setting a generous table so that search-committee members would have an array of excellent choices before them. That meant actively working with our search consultant (Isaacson, Miller) to develop the candidate pool in quantity, but more important, in quality. I spoke with several fascinating people to either solicit names or discuss their potential interest in the job. In each conversation, finding a point of connection helped me better understand the candidate and, I believe, helped the candidate better understand Spelman.

For our eventual nominee, Mary Schmidt Campbell, my role as a faculty member, writer, and scholar of African-American studies served as our point of connection. Campbell and I were both in the throes of book writing when we began talking. She was writing a book on the artist Romare Bearden, and I was writing on the social and economic experiences of women living with HIV/AIDS. Having recently transitioned from her role as a dean at New York University, she was, like any scholar, extremely protective of this opportunity to complete her manuscript. We had a rich conversation, but she declined to be considered for the Spelman presidency.

"I understand your position," I replied. "But would you be willing to talk periodically about our book projects?" She agreed, and for the next few months, as my colleagues on the search committee and I continued to explore the candidate pool, I occasionally emailed Campbell to talk about our books. I didn’t do that purely to lure her into the search; after all, we were talking with many talented people. But my job as head of the search was to help generate the best possible candidate pool, so I knew it would be wise to keep in touch with her.

As Campbell and I continued our conversations, it became clear that she was the right leader at the right time. I was struck by how much her ideas aligned with our vision for Spelman; how much her intellect, communication style, and passion for both social justice and rich scholarly inquiry resonated with the culture of Spelman; and how her experiences as a long-serving, successful dean at NYU could prove invaluable for Spelman and our strategic agenda. I was energized and inspired by our talks, reminded of the power of the life of the mind.

Julia Schmalz
Beverly Daniel Tatum
Then came the conversation where Campbell excitedly shared that she had completed the manuscript on Romare Bearden. As a fellow scholar, I was delighted for her. As chair of the Spelman search committee, I saw an opportunity. The time was right for her to contemplate pursuing the presidency. And I think my being a professor and a fellow scholar played a role in this mutual discovery and assessment process.

As faculty members, we emphasize fair and systematic processes, collaboration in decision-making, and the power of making intellectual connections. Those are some of the tools that I brought to bear in Spelman’s search. Despite the many challenges facing academe today, those skills and values of academe have tremendous importance as we labor to identify and nurture future leaders.

Mary Schmidt Campbell, president of Spelman College: In the spring of 2014, when Beverly Tatum announced her retirement from the presidency of Spelman College, after 13 years, she was assured of leaving behind a sterling legacy: a 400-percent increase in financial aid, major campus renovations, and a successful fund-raising campaign. Stellar though its legacy may have been, however, much of Spelman’s accomplishments were unknown to me. My first visit to the campus, as an arts consultant, came at Tatum’s invitation after I had retired — or so I thought.

I left the campus impressed, and a month later received a call from a consulting firm gauging my interest in the Spelman presidency. Despite an excellent sales pitch, my mind was made up. I was retired. I was finishing a book, taking time off, and enjoying an unfettered life. So I politely demurred. What followed in the next weeks was an astutely choreographed recruitment that allowed the college to slowly unfold the depth of its excellence and its singular "value proposition" in academe.

It may be jargon but "value proposition" is critical in a presidential search. It’s about what a college uniquely contributes in a highly diverse and competitive higher education landscape — what it offers to each student that cannot be found elsewhere. As a candidate, you have to believe that you, in turn, have a unique and timely contribution to make toward sustaining and growing that value proposition.

Spelman excelled at using the search process as a means of articulating its value, delineating the requirements of leadership, and providing a process within which both institution and individual could see, come to know, and evaluate each other closely.

Three aspects of the search process were especially noteworthy.

  • The presidential-search website. Layers of information about the college were easily accessible on the site. A fact sheet provided quantitative information about retention rates, undergraduate research, studying abroad. The bios and statements about why each trustee had decided to serve on the Spelman board were personal, heartfelt, and inspiring.
  • An extremely effective search-committee chair. Watkins-Hayes proved a persuasive advocate and ambassador for Spelman. On sabbatical for the year of the search, she brought to her role as chair a clarity and consistency of process, in-depth knowledge of the institution, and a passion for its mission. Most important, for this former retiree, she brought patience and persistence.
  • A consistent, methodical, and thorough process of community inquiry and feedback. Listening to people share stories about what Spelman meant to them gave me a lucid, fully drawn portrait of the "value proposition." I came away thinking: This is a place to which I had something to contribute, but from which I also had something to learn.

Looking back, the search and the transition into the presidency were a continuous process. Spelman is one of the few places in our culture that offers to women of African descent a challenging, high-quality liberal-arts education that comes wrapped in those lifetime bonds of sisterhood. The search itself began the process of forging those ties for the new president and continuing the uninterrupted ascent of a remarkable place.

Rosalind Brewer is chair of the Spelman College Board of Trustees and president and CEO of Sam’s Club. Romie Tribble is a professor of economics and president of the college’s Faculty Council. Celeste Watkins-Hayes is an associate professor of sociology & African-American studies at Northwestern University and chair of Spelman’s presidential-search committee. Mary Schmidt Campbell, former dean of the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, took office as president of Spelman College in August of 2015.