College Leader Takes Over Effort to Train New Campus Chiefs

Juniata College

Thomas R. Kepple Jr.
May 20, 2013

After 15 years as president of Juniata College, a small, liberal-arts institution in Huntingdon, Pa., Thomas R. Kepple Jr. is about to take the reins at one of the country's few organizations that specialize in training potential college and university presidents.

He has no doubt that the task of coaching deans, provosts, and vice presidents for leadership roles will increase in urgency in the coming decade, because so many chief executives are nearing retirement in a time of great change.

"As I think of my 38 years in higher education, we've had challenges, but never quite so many at one time as we have today," says Mr. Kepple, 65, who on July 1 will become president of the nonprofit American Academic Leadership Institute. He succeeds Ann Die Hasselmo, who has been in the role for seven years.

Mr. Kepple has often taught in institute programs, which combine seminars, readings, mentorship, coaching, and field trips to watch senior administrators at work.

He plans to explore new possibilities for the curricula but says his "basic goal is to continue some very high-quality programs."

The key component of those—the talent—is unlikely to lag, he says: "The people who get to our programs are generally nominated by someone who knows them, like a vice president of some sort. They're pretty well vetted."

Juniata, with its enrollment of only 1,565, is smaller than many of the institutions that aspiring presidents may end up leading. But Mr. Kepple says his tenure there has given him a broad view of the top job on campus. "The advantage of coming from a smaller institution," he says, "is that administrators there touch more components of an institution than those at larger ones that are more siloed."

Before leading Juniata, Mr. Kepple was for nine years vice president for business and community relations at the University of the South, and worked for 14 years at Rhodes College in various capacities, including provost. He is founding chair of the Tuition Plan Consortium, a nonprofit organization that offers a prepaid-tuition plan for families that send children to any of more than 250 private colleges.

In its yearlong programs, the leadership institute, which is based in Washington, collaborates with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and the Council of Independent Colleges. "The arrangement is somewhat of a challenge, but each organization brings its strength," says Mr. Kepple. Adding to the organizational complexity is the institute's for-profit subsidiary, Academic Search Inc., which conducts executive searches and directs its profits to the institute's activities.

Ms. Hasselmo, a licensed psychologist with extensive experience in higher education, started the institute's flagship training programs and oversaw adjustments in the group's structure. Overcoming considerable internal opposition, she repositioned Academic Search within the organization. She will become director emerita.

In most professions, leadership training begins in a person's 20s, but teaching and research duties occupy academics into their mid-30s or even 40s. So training of the kind that the institute and some other organizations and colleges offer makes good sense, says Lucy A. Leske, vice president and co-director for the education practice at Witt/Keiffer, an executive-search firm.

Colleges are clamoring for such training—the institute's courses are oversubscribed—and that is remarkable, Ms. Leske says, because "the academy has for most of its history turned its nose up at training for management."

Few candidates know how to deal with boards of trustees, says Jan Greenwood, a partner at Greenwood/Asher & Associates, another search firm, and almost no candidate has dealt with athletics.

Mr. Kepple can help there: He is founding chair of the Landmark Conference, an NCAA Division III conference that was formed several years ago.

Part of his role at the leadership institute, like that of a sports coach, will be to motivate the team. The extent of some presidential responsibilities takes trainees aback, he says. Some candidates hesitate when they find out that "fund raising is 20 to 30 percent of a president's job," he says. "They may say, 'That is not my ultimate career goal.'"