A Search for College President Engages the Whole Campus

A COLLEGE that needs a new president is likely to go soul-searching before it goes headhunting.

Search-committee members typically represent the varying perspectives of trustees, faculty, alumni, administrators, and students. But before they can begin evaluating potential leaders or even place an advertisement, the committee's first job is often to engage the whole campus in shaping a vision for its future.

When Oberlin College in Ohio began its presidential search in 1993, the committee held open forums to get the ideas and concerns of the campus community out on the table. But its subsequent work took place behind closed doors. After talking through the issues, the 11-member team began to read resumes and conduct interviews to narrow down the pool of more than 200 candidates.

Christopher Pinelo, the student representative, says they devoted ''well over 400 hours,'' sometimes spending three entire weekends a month in meetings. Working together that intensely, the group, which ranged in age from about 22 to 70, ''bonded pretty well,'' he says.

One of the concerns Mr. Pinelo voiced was the need for a president who was ''not only visible,'' but accessible to students.

That demand actually extended to the three final candidates, who were brought to campus to meet with students and other groups.

Nancy Schrom Dye, who became Oberlin's president in July 1994, found her campus visit as a finalist beneficial. It gave her a head start on what she says is the greatest challenge for a president: ''dealing with different constituencies, interpreting one to the other.''

Search-committee members aren't the only ones who have to make choices. Ms. Dye, who had been nominated for other college presidencies, would ask herself: ''Is this a school that I feel some sort of identification with? Will I wake up every morning feeling like my purpose is to advance this institution?''

While heart-felt concern for a college propels and steers the volunteer presidential search committees, many of them call on professional consultants for support over the long haul.

Both Oberlin and Smith College, in Northampton, Mass., turned to the Academic Search Consultation Service (ASCS), a nonprofit group in Washington, D.C. Stanley Paulson, a senior consultant at ASCS, says that they draw on their own academic and administrative experience to assist up to 30 schools a year.

Nancy Martin, a partner at Educational Management Network in Nantucket, Mass., only takes on about two ''very labor-intensive'' searches a year. She identifies three components of a good search: in-depth community outreach at the beginning of the process (spending five to seven days interviewing groups on campus); ''very aggressive recruitment'' to give ''as broad a choice as possible''; and ''a good communications plan'' to make sure the candidates are well treated.

Over the past 20 years, Ms. Martin says she has seen ''many more women and members of diverse groups who have come up in the administration'' and become promising candidates or presidents. However, she adds, attaining diversity is still a problem. Also, some schools understandably favor experience in similar institutions. The community-college arena offers ''much greater diversity in administrative leadership'' that could be drawn upon, Martin says. But there is ''almost a brick wall'' for successful administrators in community colleges who may want ''to move to the four-year arena.''

Martin also says it's important to structure a way for new presidents to get to know the community before taking office. One president she had worked with started in the middle of a crisis over health insurance for employees, but ''she was aware of the issues and didn't have to step in blind.''

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