Follow the “Rooney Rule” for Leadership Succession

By Scott D. Miller and Marylouise Fennell

THOSE OF YOU WHO FOLLOW professional football are familiar with the "Rooney Rule," named for Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney and intended to avert civil rights litigation. It requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for every coaching vacancy, effectively leveling the playing field for talented minority coaches. Until its implementation in 2002, the NFL had a poor track record in hiring African-American coaches. It has since hired six, two of whom led their teams to Super Bowl 2007. In fact, it has been so successful that even those who had initially opposed the rule later advocated for it to be extended to front office slots as well.

We have long wondered whether a variation of the Rooney Rule might be applied to colleges and universities. Despite strides in hiring qualified minority candidates, they- as well as women-are markedly absent from presidents' suites and other senior management posts in proportion to their percentage of the total population. As a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education noted, "Despite recent attention to diversity, the typical college leader is still an older white man."

According to the article, only 5.9 percent of college presidents in 2006 were African- American, while just 4.6 percent were Hispanic and less than one percent each were Asian-American or Native American. Women did only marginally better. Despite such high-profile presidencies as that of Drew Gilpin Faust at Harvard, only 23 percent of college presidents in 2006 were female, up from 9.5 percent two decades ago.

These numbers are simply unacceptable.

It's not a matter of conscious discrimination, we believe, but one of supply and demand, a lack of exposure as well as the opportunity to become familiar with the application and interview process. Even when governing boards take extraordinary measures to find well-qualified minority men and women-and such persons can be found when there is a commitment to identifying them-they find a relatively small pool.

The problem is, one simply can't start at the top. Many talented women and minorities would benefit from mentoring and broader exposure to disciplines crucial to a successful presidency.

We're not talking about window dressing here but about preparing men and women of promise and potential to occupy the top jobs, and current presidents should make this a top priority.

Governing boards can help by ensuring that talented faculty and mid-level administrators receive the support they need to aim for the top slot. One related effort is The Council of Independent Colleges' Presidential Vocation and Institutional Mission. The seminar is designed to help prospective college and university presidents connect their personal calling with institutional priorities and purposes. Candidates for this program must be nominated by their presidents, who then gain a stake in their ongoing success.

By increasing the pool of candidates, both minorities and institutions will benefit, the latter not only by having a broader base of experience and strengths from which to select, but also by appealing to increasingly diverse student bodies.
We submit, in fact, that higher education needs to go beyond the Rooney Rule in its vision and mindset. While a commitment to interviewing and hiring minorities is one thing, it's another to increase the pool of well-qualified, well-prepared applicants of all backgrounds.

Senior leadership-presidents and trustees-must first open the door, giving opportunities, providing encouragement, nominating, mentoring, and nurturing. American higher education needs all the talent available to thrive while meeting the challenges of the 21st century. It's not just the right thing to do; it's also good business to do so.

Marylouise Fennell, former president of Carlow University (Pa.), is senior counsel for the Council of Independent Colleges. She is also a partner in the executive search firm Gallagher-Fennell Higher Education Services. Scott D. Miller has been a college president for 16 years, the last 10 at Wesley College (Del.).

Source: University Business, August 2007


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Marylouise Fennell, RSM
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Pittsburgh, PA 15207

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