An Institutional Review: A Key To Winning The Race

By Scott D. Miller and Marylouise Fennell
Enrollment Manager, Volume 4, Issue 1, January 1, 2008

A new president often arrives to find the line already forming outside the office door – so many demands, so many constituencies seeking his or her ear, so little time. The crucial first six months of a new presidency must lay a firm foundation for success because the honeymoon period in higher education is becoming ever shorter. All too often, we’ve seen missteps in this pivotal sage prove fatal to a fledgling presidency, even with exceptionally well-qualified candidates.

How to sort out and prioritize these often-competing priorities? How to evaluate the soundness of proffered advice?

In more than 40 executive searches, the single most effective tool for a smooth presidential transition that we’ve found is the institutional review – preferably one conducted before the new CEO arrives non campus or within the first six months in office. Not only will a good outside review benefit a new president, but it will also offer an objective overview of the institution – warts and all – for Board members.

“Increasingly, governing boards choose to commission institutional reviews as a first step toward establishing or re-establishing more legitimate premises for the president. Boards and search committees often find these reviews indispensable during presidential searches,” says Dr. James Fisher, author of The Entrepreneurial College President (ACE, Washington, DC, 2004).

Even a model presidential search will likely provide limited information emphasizing an institution’s positives, so when a newcomer to the institution – if not to the area – takes the helm, he or she may need the reality check that a comprehensive review will provide. This is true even if – perhaps we should say especially if – the new CEO was an internal candidate. Regardless of prior position, when a former dean or vice president moves up, he or she will continue to view the university or college through the same lens. A good review by outside experts affords a clearer focus.

Evaluating every dimension of the institution, a good review is conducted by a team of outside recognized authorities who, over a two- to four-month period, assess the condition of an institution through interviews and other data, with a special emphasis on strategic positioning. A final report should include an institutional profile with analysis, observations and recommendations for academic programs, faculty, students, administration, budget, finances and governance.

There are many advantages to conducting a review before a new president is named. For example, a review prepared in anticipation of a search process often results in changes in governance policies and practices that will make a presidency more attractive to first-rank candidates. For a newly appointed president, the review can also:

ensure a better informed and more enlightened board;

establish a tentative agenda for the institution;

provide a more objective foundation for strategic and long-range planning;

objectively evaluate the organization and administration, quality of academic programs, faculty and student body;

advise on attitudes of all key constituencies; and help determine the potential for increased private support.

There are other sound reasons for an outside institutional review immediately before or in the very early months of a new president’s tenure:

it will disclose potential minefields, enabling the new CEO to avoid costly missteps at a time when the all-important first impressions are being formed;

it will provide a full and objective knowledge base from unbiased individuals with no vested interest from which a new president may then proceed to mold an institutional vision;

finally, and perhaps most importantly, it will often help the president handle sensitive issues, which if left undisclosed, could derail a new presidency. Moreover, it will help protect a new president from costly mistakes at the outset.

The cost of a professional outside review varies according to the complexity of the agenda and the size of the institution. Regardless of the amount, we have found that this money is well spent as an investment in the institution’s future success. At least, it will help prevent costly mistakes and premature turnover; at best, a review will serve as a transformational vehicle for the entire institution.

“A good review is usually far more valuable than even the most thoughtful self-assessment,” Dr. Fisher says.

Strong beginnings start with sound planning at the outset, and there is not better tool than an institutional review. Therefore, we urge boards and new presidents to begin this process sooner, rather than later. With the possible exception of building a strong Cabinet, no other first steps will serve a new CEO so well throughout his or her entire tenure.

Dr. Scott D. Miller is beginning his first year as president of Bethany College in West Virginia. He is entering his 17th year as a college president.

Dr. Marylouise Fennell, a former president of Carlow University in Pittsburgh, PA, is senior counsel for the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC). She is also a partner in the executive search firm of Gallagher-Fennell Higher Education Services. Both serve as consultants to college presidents and boards.



To learn more about

Marylouise Fennell, RSM
606 Bigelow Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15207


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