How Not to Hire a Chancellor and Succeed Through Trying

Published:
May
2009
Author:
Blumenthal, Virginia, President Board of Trustees, RCCD, Mahon, Richard, Academic Senate President, RCC
In the 2005-06 academic year, longtime Riverside Community College (RCC) District president/chancellor Salvatore Rotella announced his intention to retire on June 30, 2006. Three years, three searches, three search consultants, two interim chancellors, and nine public finalists later, the RCC District appointed Dr. Gregory Gray as chancellor. Faculty and staff got used to being greeted off campus with, "oh, you're the people who can't hire a chancellor." Though it may seem counterintuitive, many faculty, staff, administrators, and board of trustee members believe that waiting for the right candidate is just what the district needed to provide leadership for the district. Here are some of the lessons we learned that might be helpful to other districts struggling with leadership gaps.

Know what you're looking for
It will be easier to find the right finalist if the college or district is clear about what it needs. If a college has strong academic leadership, then perhaps candidates with strong budget, planning, or fund raising credentials will best serve the college. Is the college looking for new vision or to consolidate existing initiatives? Is the institution looking to change its institutional culture, and to provide more central direction or to allow more decentralization of decision making within the institution? The more discussion that takes place before beginning the formal search, the more smoothly the search will proceed.

Ensure the participation of all constituencies
It had been a decade and a half since the district had last hired a CEO; only one trustee remained on the board from that era, and two new trustees were elected while the paper application portion of the first chancellor search was in process. Each trustee believed that the selection of chancellor was their most important responsibility as a trustee, and each was hesitant to yield that responsibility to others. Some constituency groups rejected all finalists in the first year because there had been no constituent group participation in the search process at all. Thus when the search began again in the second year, there was vigorous discussion about the proper shape of the search committee. The trustees still wanted to be involved, but acknowledged that faculty, union, administrative, student, and community participation were necessary to a successful outcome. Some trustees worried about a search committee that was so large as to be unwieldy or to raise concerns about maintaining confidentiality. Ultimately the board was pleased to establish a committee of about 15 members, chaired by a trustee and including faculty appointed by the senate and both a full-time and part-time faculty member appointed by the bargaining agent. Even though the second year's search also proved unsuccessful, all agreed that the change in process had been a beneficial accomplishment in itself.

Know the virtues and limitations of search firms
Part of the problem that arose in the first year's search was ambiguity about the role of the search consultant, which led the board into exercising a greater role early in the process than eventually proved to be effective. A second organization led the board's second search, and mixed feelings about that process led the board to choose a third and final search organization to guide the third and successful search. No search process will be successful if the right candidates do not apply, and finding a consultant who will invest the attention and energy into getting to know the needs of the district and to finding the right candidates to meet that need is no small accomplishment. Some search consultants will be well connected to other California community college districts while other search firms will be more effective producing out-of-state candidates. Some boards may wish to find "out of the box" candidates with expertise in areas other than community college education. Taking the time to find the right consultant is a crucial aspect of finding the right candidates.

Faculty need to conduct background checks
It's a given that every candidate will present themselves in the most effective fashion, and most community college districts have experience with administrators who talk the talk but don't walk so well. Thus it is important for someone to seek a range of views about the strengths and weaknesses of final candidates from others who have worked with them. For various reasons, neither search consultants nor human resource departments are anxious to probe too deeply, and discrete phone calls from senate officers or union leaders are likely to provide the most useful information. The Academic Senate directory can provide contact information for senate leadership in California community colleges, but for out-of-state candidates it may be necessary to use Google and some Internet exploration to find faculty leaders from outside of California. It should go without saying that making a number of phone calls is important, since even terrific administrators don't get along with everyone. It's also important to have a long enough conversation to get a general picture of finalists in order to guard against the temptation to endorse an unpopular administrator in the hopes that someone else will take them. Having such conversations before public forums can be especially helpful in providing insight on what areas to ask candidates about in a public setting.

Don't intimidate finalists; don't shy away from tough questions
Speaking of forums, be respectful of finalists, but don't be afraid to ask tough questions. Each of the finalists in our first search and two of the finalists in our third year had very public votes of no confidence (as discovered via simple Google searches, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Education, and elsewhere). A candidate might make a good president or chancellor despite being a poor fit elsewhere. Ideally the facts that led to votes of no confidence will be accurately stated though one should expect that the interpretation of events will vary. Be attentive to the larger setting within which a vote of no confidence took place: was an administrator compromised by demands of higher administrators or the board of trustees? More than one of the finalists that came to our district had difficulties that arose from budget problems out of their control. Don't assume that individuals who have received a vote of no confidence haven't learned from their experience.

Don't just endorse-support your recommendation
While it's certain that every constituency wants the best possible president or chancellor, it's likely that each constituency sees "best" in a different light. Faculty are likely to want leaders who recognize the centrality of the educational mission of a college or district, but faculty don't have to balance the books. Elected trustees know that community colleges are teaching institutions, but they need to be able to reassure the voters that public monies are spent in the most prudent possible way. Bargaining units are likely to want college and district chief administrators to be open to considering the needs of employee groups. Because the final selection of a president (in a single-college district) or chancellor (in a multicollege district) will be made by the locally elected governing board, it is crucial that leaders in different constituency groups indicate why they consider a particular finalist best suited to next lead the institution. Faculty expect students to learn how to support an interpretation or argument in the classes they teach. It makes sense that each campus constituency should articulate the reasons why it considers a particular administrative finalist best suited to lead the college or district.

Don't rush-timing is everything
Finally, insist on the best. It was difficult when the first year's search did not yield a new chancellor, and even more so when the second year search again failed to produce a permanent chancellor-even if a dramatically improved search process resulted from the second year's deliberations. Trustees debated whether they had failed in their efforts or only earned an incomplete. At the end of the process, however, when near universal unanimity emerged across the district that a particular candidate was the most promising next chancellor for the district, having waited for the right candidate to be available was clearly the right decision to have made. The Riverside Community College District had excellent college and district administrators and two extremely capable interim chancellors that made it possible to be patient, though by the end of two years without a permanent chancellor in place, it was clear that even a district with very strong college and district leadership needs someone permanent at the helm.

The most important lesson we learned is that finding the right president or chancellor requires time, hard work, and extensive dialogue, but it is also the case that the process that is put into place in finding a college or district CEO can set a precedent for the kind of working relationship constituency groups will experience as that new president or chancellor comes to work in the district. Taking the time not only to find the best leader but also to establish a credible search and selection process will reward a district immeasurably as it welcomes its new leader.