Navigating a Presidential Transition

Toronto — A presidential transition can be a nervous time for a college. And given the high average age of presidents and the shorter time they now typically spend at an institution, many enrollment managers will have to go through at least one. Panelists at a session of the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s annual meeting here provided some advice on how to get through rough waters in good shape.

When a college is between presidents, long-term planning can stagnate, said Ingrid Hayes, assistant provost for enrollment services at the University of Alabama at Huntsville. “You can’t do a lot with new ideas,” she said. Still, “you can get the basics done, and you should.”

Specific enrollment goals may be unclear, Ms. Hayes said, but the class still has to come in. “I can’t show up in the fall and say, ‘There was no goal, so here are your two students,’” she said.

People on campuses sometimes freeze up during a transition, said Bradley L. Goan, vice president for enrollment and dean of admission at Transylvania University, in Kentucky. But enrollment leaders can’t afford to, he said. “In the work that we do, if we stop moving, we’re moving backward.”

One thing that can keep an admissions office moving in the right direction in between presidents is having a strategic-enrollment plan in place, Mr. Goan said. That document can guide the office and be shared with presidential candidates when they visit.

Chief enrollment officers often get to meet with presidential finalists, Mr. Goan said. When that happens, it’s important to make a good first impression on the potential new boss. Enrollment managers should do their homework on the candidates, Mr. Goan said, and be prepared to share their own enrollment vision as well as the college’s.

Once the new president arrives, communication is key. When he or she asks for something new, “never say never right away,” Mr. Goan said. The enrollment chief needs to share the office’s weaknesses and strengths with the new president, and be prepared to back ideas up with data.

Over all, said Mr. Goan, who is about to experience his second presidential transition at Transylvania, “this is not a time to be timid. But it’s also not a time to be reckless.”

Richard D. Valentine, who once worked in admissions and is now a president, brought a different perspective to the panel. It’s important to understand that everyone wants a piece of a new leader, but admissions is a priority, and its time will come, said Mr. Valentine, president of Culver-Stockton College, in Missouri.

One way to get the president’s ear, Mr. Valentine said, is to ask the chair of the board to share the enrollment plan with him or her. “Most presidents,” he said, “listen to the Board of Trustees.”

Everyone who advises new presidents encourages them to make big decisions, including personnel ones, sooner rather than later, Mr. Valentine said, so the first few months can be tense. The two greatest areas of vulnerability during a transition are admissions and development, he said.

“There are no excuses for not bringing in the class in a presidential transition,” Mr. Valentine said.

No matter how well an enrollment manager is doing, some presidents do want to bring in their own people, Mr. Valentine said. If that happens, the previous enrollment leader should leave gracefully.

And there are other jobs, he said. Not only is there a shortage of good admissions talent; there’s a shortage of presidents, and more colleges are looking for ones with fund-raising or enrollment experience. “Do not despair,” Mr. Valentine said, “there’s a seat on the bus for everyone.”

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