“You can really make a difference as a college president,” said Kate Haley, a senior consultant in Witt/Kieffer’s higher education practice.
She’s been a president at two institutions and served as a provost and a dean before that. Now she helps institutions with searches for presidents and other high-level administrators.
If you’re thinking about a presidency, Haley recommends you:
• Present a well-rounded skill set. Try to get experience with strategic planning or become part of a team that includes leaders from areas across campus. That way, you’ll learn to understand the full scope of issues facing a university, Haley said.
Your experience as an academic administrator has given you a thorough understanding of the academic side of the institution. But presidents also need to be able to think about athletics, Haley said. They need to have fundraising skills, including with donors who aren’t academics.
They might also need to visit the local fire department to thank fire fighters for their work on college safety or the hospital to present a check.
If a search committee is interviewing 10 candidates for an hour each, those candidates might include four provosts, two sitting presidents, two vice presidents for advancement, and two with other backgrounds such as enrollment, Haley said. Consider how you can show that your skills cover those areas beyond academic administration.
• Get experience in fundraising. If you’re a chief academic officer, soliciting donors might not be part of your responsibilities. But your president might be willing to groom you, Haley said. “I could send you to this donor to talk about this academic area because you talk about it so well” is the type of response you want to hear from the president, she said.
Your fundraising experience should include working with big donors, not just with the annual fund, Haley said. When you interview for a presidency, you need to be able to talk about your results rather than just saying you can imagine doing it, she added.
• Understand that your personality will be evaluated. The search committee wants to know that you can make a good speech. They’re going to want to see you eat to make sure you have good manners. And it’s important that you are equally adept in a variety of contexts. You need to be as good with the cafeteria staff as you are with fellow academics, Haley said.
• Write a good cover letter. It’s surprising how often cover letters are poorly written, Haley said. The letter needs to be tailored to the specific opportunity rather than appearing to be a boilerplate document.
It should show that you have done the expected research but aren’t presumptuous about knowing the institution, Haley said. And your letter should match your abilities closely with what the institution says it wants, she added. “The best ones are explicit about how they match what the institution is looking for,” Haley said.
And enthusiasm can go a long way. Many academics tend to be very analytical, which doesn’t come across well in a cover letter.
The worst impression you can make is by misspelling the institution’s name, Haley said.
• Think of a presidency as a couple’s job. Make sure your spouse is on board, Haley said. And if you’re single, address that up front because dating could be seen as political, Haley said.
• Be prepared for intensity once you’re hired. While many candidates understand that a presidency is an all-encompassing job, the intensity is a surprise to most new presidents when they begin to live it, Haley said. The number of events a president is asked to attend is endless. And on any given evening, attending one event means not being present at another. If you go to the women’s basketball game, you miss the concert, Haley said.
“You’re the embodiment of the campus,” Haley said. And while that puts you in a position to do a lot of good, it can also feel depersonalizing, she said. “You have to find a way not to feel like a cardboard cutout that people are moving around,” she said.
Email Kate Haley at firstname.lastname@example.org.