Does your next college president need a background in student affairs?

Chronicle examines value of leaders with crisis-handling experience

More college and university presidents are being forced to tackle student affairs issues—and that has created more demand for leaders with a student affairs background, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.

In 2011, just 4.5% of college presidents had previous experience in student affairs, according to a study from the American Council on Education (ACE). But the Chronicle notes that, anecdotally, numerous institutions—including private colleges, historically black colleges, and regional public colleges—have since hired a president with a student affairs background. Search consultants also say that student affairs leaders are accounting for more and more finalists.

The responsibilities of the modern president "have taken a little bit of the glow away" from the job for some provosts, who have a good sense of what being president entails, says Sheila Murphy, an executive-search consultant at Wiff/Kieffer. Many could decide not to pursue a position as president because they do not see significant redeeming qualities about the demanding job.

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"All the things that would be a turnoff for a provost, a student affairs person would laugh and say, 'When do we get to the bad stuff?'" says Dean Bresciani, president of North Dakota State University and former VP for student affairs at Texas A&M University at College Station.

Brand examples

Often, search committees are concerned with public relations and crisis-handling skills, says Murphy. They focus less on specific elements of the enrollment challenge and more on a candidate's ability to manage situations that could have a direct impact on reputation and student recruitment.

Murphy says one trustee told her, "I just don't want somebody in the leadership role who's never managed a suicide."

Other benefits include student development leaders' experience working with multiple departments and their general extroverted personalities.

A persisting resistance

However, the Chronicle reports that some boards still resist choosing student affairs candidates because of concerns they would not be able to handle the faculty or lead a research institution.

Many student affairs leaders who become presidents studied higher education administration, a degree that does not carry the same weight with faculty as other subjects, according to Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA-Student Affairs Professionals in Higher Education. But Bresciani points out that, during his time at Texas A&M, he led an office with the budget and staffing equivalent to that of a small college, has a Ph.D—all while regularly teaching and publishing.

An additional concern is that while student affairs leaders may help court donors, they do not generally have much experience bringing in major gifts.

But such candidates may be able to play up their enrollment management experience in order to make up for their lack in major gifts experience, says Gale Merseth, a VP at executive-search firm Isaacson, Millers (Gardner, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 3/30).

The takeaway: More boards of trustees are looking to student affairs leaders when conducting searches for presidents.

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