Seeking New President, Ohio State U. Holds Forum on Making the Right Pick

September 03, 2013

The best college presidents are bold and visionary, intellectually curious and data-driven, and tough but sensitive, a panel of higher-education leaders said during a symposium on Friday about the changing nature of the university presidency.

Ohio State University held the event as it embarks on a national search for a new president. In challenging times for higher education, when resources are declining and demands for accountability are on the rise, the person at the top needs to be politically savvy, know how to ask for money, and be able to manage crisis, the panelists said. He or she also has to be an enabler who can bring together the disparate groups of people who expect to be engaged and involved in campus decisions, they said. And a college president must have the compassion and toughness to be able to pick up the telephone and call a parent when a student dies.

What a modern leader cannot be is insecure, said one of the speakers, Lawrence S. Bacow, a former president of Tufts University. "If you want to be loved," he quipped, "get a dog."

The panelists were Mr. Bacow; Elson S. Floyd, president of Washington State University; Thomas W. Ross, president of the University of North Carolina system; and Teresa A. Sullivan, president of the University of Virginia. Richard Chait, a professor emeritus at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, moderated the discussion.

"We know how important the search is," said Robert H. Schottenstein, chairman of Ohio State's Board of Trustees. "And we want to learn as much as we can before we act."

Ohio State's previous leader, E. Gordon Gee, left at the end of June after spending nearly half of his life as a college president. Mr. Gee was a well-known leader whose high pay, big spending, and frequent verbal gaffes often made national news.

Mistakes to Avoid

Mr. Chait asked the panelists to identify the biggest mistakes a new president is likely to make and should avoid.

"Renovating the president's house," Mr. Ross said, as the audience laughed. "That will get you every time."

A president should not start a strategic-planning process on Day 1, ask for anyone's resignation on Day 1, or respond to issues too quickly, without doing enough consulting, other panelists said. A common mistake, Mr. Ross added, is not understanding the potential scale of a crisis when it happens and failing to act.

One thing a new president should be sure to do, Mr. Bacow said, is give people around him or her explicit permission to bring bad news.

Mr. Chait also asked the presidents to offer strategies for avoiding isolation in the top job.

Presidents should not hold any meetings in their own offices, at least for the first year, Mr. Ross said. Getting out to meet people where they work and walking around the campus is important, Mr. Floyd and Ms. Sullivan agreed.

When he was president, Mr. Bacow said, he issued a blanket invitation for anyone to accompany him on his morning runs.

"It allows you to meet with a cross section of people," he said. And the informality helps to make a president more approachable.

"After a few miles," he said, "you're just another sweaty runner."

The college leaders discussed financial, demographic, and public-perception challenges confronting modern managers in higher education.

University presidents face a basic dilemma, Mr. Bacow said. While there is a lot of outside pressure on institutions to become more efficient, there is also a lot of pressure from students and their parents to operate in ways that are inefficient. No one, he said, is asking for bigger classes, fewer curricular options, or more spartan facilities.

If he had one piece of advice for Ohio State, Mr. Ross said, it would be to find a trusted leader. He ticked off numerous attributes of such a person: someone who rights wrongs, confronts reality, gets better, talks straight, demonstrates respect, shows loyalty, delivers results, clarifies expectations, and listens first.

Mr. Chait praised Ohio State for convening the discussion as the university works to identify who it wants as its next leader. "We often do not stop and pause to ask what is the context in which we operate," Mr. Chait said, "and what's the nature of the position."