The Role of a Board of Trustees in a Presidential Search

board-meetingAt an American Council on Education meeting some years ago, a prominent university board chair noted that there are only two rules to remember when taking on the board chair role. Rule number one: running the university is not your day job. Rule number two: never forget rule number one.

As an executive search consultant and a member of several boards myself, this advice has served me well over many years of supporting over 75 presidential searches in higher education. The relationship between a board and senior leadership can make or break an institution, and I have seen both and everything in between. Contemporary best practices in board governance assign boards very few actual responsibilities. The relationship is primarily advisory and fiduciary. Outside of consent agendas to approve budgets, financial statements, tax returns, investment policy, tenure recommendations, bond offerings, large contracts and the like, the board’s primary role is to serve as a thought partner with leadership.

The most notable exception occurs when it comes time to hire and evaluate the institution’s chief executive officer. Successful transition to new leadership depends on the board understanding and carrying out its role effectively during the search process. Whether for a public university system or a private college, the board’s role in the search is critical to its success. What follows are key areas where boards can and should exercise their responsibility thoughtfully and with integrity:

Mission Alignment

Transition to new leadership is an important time for reflection on the institution’s mission. Among the board’s primary responsibilities is to ensure the institution is fulfilling its mission. Whether due to a sudden departure or a long-planned retirement, the change in leadership should catalyze discussions at the board level that reaffirm or realign the mission of the organization before heading out to recruit new leadership. Ideally, these discussions should not take place in isolation but allow for input from institutional constituents. Ultimately, if the board can’t describe and support fully the mission of the organization, not only will candidates detect misalignment, the mandate for the new president will be muddied.

Institutional Assessment

Boards can smooth the path to presidential success by both conducting honest assessments of the institution’s strengths and weaknesses while identifying obstacles to success. This means encouraging current or interim leadership to make tough decisions around longstanding issues that may have dogged the prior administration. Boards should move into the search process fully informed about the institution’s finances, enrollment and financial aid picture, compliance issues and legal matters, then identify and/or deal with as many underlying problems as possible before the next CEO arrives.

Appointing the Committee

When it comes time to begin the presidential search, higher education boards typically appoint a presidential search committee. Some states have well documented procedures for appointing committees and running the search for public institutions, but many more do not and leave it up to the board. Nearly all of the presidential searches I have supported were carried out by a presidential search committee made up of mixed constituents. There are many viewpoints on how large committees should be and who should be on them. Whatever the board’s decision, it serves the presidential process and the next CEO best if the board is clear and transparent about the process it uses for committee member selection. Needless to say, any presidential search committee should include multiple board members, one of whom should chair or co-chair the committee. A good rule of thumb is to include members who represent institutional history and the future, diverse demographics including gender and race, and different fields or backgrounds.

The Charge

Once the presidential search committee is appointed, the board must charge the committee. A presidential search charge typically lays out the board’s expectations for committee performance and deliverables. A sample charge might include instructions for selecting a search firm, preparing a leadership profile, conducting national or international outreach, selecting and evaluating candidates, communicating updates to the board, and maintaining confidentiality. The board, in other words, is effectively delegating through the charge the responsibility for conducting the search toward a specified goal. That goal is also up to the board – whether the committee identifies a single individual to present to the board of trustees for approval, or multiple individuals, leaving it up to the board whom to select. This is an important distinction and one that should be weighed carefully at the start of the search so that the committee and the organization are absolutely clear on what constitutes a successful fulfillment of the charge.

Leadership Expectations

Since selecting and evaluating the president is one of the board’s most important roles, naturally they should be concerned with identifying the top priorities for new leadership to attend to as well as the preferred qualities and characteristics they seek in new leadership. The presidential transition is an ideal time to recalibrate what specific skills and competencies the organization needs in its CEO to address current challenges. For instance, if the organization is facing significant realignment, a leader with change management experience might be the top priority for the board. Similarly, a pending capital campaign indicates the need for an effective fundraiser. The board should actively engage with the committee during the early stages of the search to offer their collective and individual perspectives on priorities for new leadership and criteria for evaluating candidate background and experience.

Cultivation and Evaluation

Once the search commences, the board should allow the committee to do its work and not second guess it throughout. The chair and trustees on the committee are the board’s delegates. As the committee goes through various stages of narrowing the pool, it may want to broaden involvement in the recruitment and evaluation process to the full board. Whether the board meets with a subset of candidates formally or informally in social settings, board members should be expected to assist in actively cultivating candidates and providing feedback to the committee on the candidates they meet.


With the exception of states with generous sunshine laws that require full disclosure of candidate identities throughout the search, every presidential search operates for some or all of its life cycle in confidence, allowing candidates to pursue the opportunity without fear of disclosure to their home institution. The search committee will often sign a confidentiality statement that commits them to silence about candidate identities and evaluations. Board members on the committee must abide by this commitment at all costs in order to maintain integrity of the process and safeguard candidate needs for privacy. It behooves all board members to resist the temptation to “help out” by doing their own backdoor checking on candidates outside of the committee’s work. This runs the risk of exposing and embarrassing candidates, candidate institutions, as well as the board’s own institution. Boards must respect and adhere to the search committee’s confidentiality practice.


Once the final candidate is identified, the executive committee or chair of the board is responsible for negotiating the compensation package which is ultimately approved by the board. The compensation negotiation is but one element of an effective transition plan, the foundation of the next president’s success. Typically appointed by the chair of the board, a transition committee works with the incoming and outgoing presidents, if appropriate, to identify and schedule events, meetings and opportunities for the new president to learn as much as possible, meet as many people as possible. The board and president-elect should arrange early conversations to set achievable goals with key performance indicators so that the board and president are clear on what is expected during the first year and beyond.


Mark Putnam, president of Central College in Pella, Iowa, proposes that the search for a new president should be one part of a larger transition to stable, sustainable leadership. He says, “Presidential continuity begins with a mind-set shared by the president and governing board that slavishness to immediacy yields only partial solutions to seemingly intractable problems. Lengthening the horizon of thought, plan and decision requires determination to combine relentless patience with relentless execution.” Boards are essential factors in the presidential success equation and will serve their institutions best by staying out of the weeds (remembering it’s not their “day job”) while focusing on the future.

Written by Lucy Leske



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