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Presidential Transitions: It's Not the Position, It's the Transition - Review

Tomorrow's Academy

Message Number: 
968

 

Presidential Transitions stresses the importance of having someone for the incoming president to talk to-someone who knows him or her, who is a friend, but who is also a realist. Whether the transition is inbound or outgoing-and I have looked at both sides now-nothing is more valuable. Making sense of any novel challenge is always difficult. Dealing with doubt or delusion can be equally debilitating and derailing. Whether we call it a reality check or a heart-to-heart makes no difference: some private and intimate conversation can clear the eyesight and the insight wonderfully well.

 

 

 

 

Folks:

 

The posting below is a review by Stephen Joel Trachtenberg of the book, Presidential Transitions: It's Not the Position, It's the Transition, by Patrick H. Sanaghan, Larry Goldstein, and Kathleen D. Gaval. Ace/Praeger Series on Higher Education. The review originally appeared in Planning for Higher Education. April - June, 2009. Planning for Higher Education.  37(3): 58-60.  © 1998-2009 by Society for College and University Planning (www.scup.org). Reprinted with permission. Planning for Higher Education book reviews appear at: (www.scup.org/phe).

 

Regards,

 

Rick Reis

reis@stanford.edu

UP NEXT: Finding Ways to Help Students Answer Their Own Questions

 

Tomorrow's Academia

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 Presidential Transitions: It's Not the Position,  It's the Transition  - Review

 

Anyone who reads Presidential Transitions, and this review should encourage you to do so, will notice immediately that I wrote the forward. The reader may wonder if I am double-dipping by writing a review, an idea that occurred to me and that I shared with the good people at the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP). They understood, but said, first, that they thought I could be even-handed and, second, that as a beloved ex-president and trusted advisor, I would now be able to bring a fresh perspective to the job. I agreed and I hope the reader will, too.

 

Patrick H. Sanaghan, Larry Goldstein, and Kathleen D. Gaval have written a book about process-about the one-time-only, make-or-break process of becoming a university president, and the subtitle of their book is also a warning to that end: It's Not Just The Position, It's The  Transition. They are right. Getting all the elements of a transition under control is daunting business, requiring caution, a keen eye for "pitfalls and potholes," as they say, and the ability to simultaneously look at details and see broadly, to have both an intellectual and personal sense of the new institution (or the new assignment at the old institution), and to acquire-by homework and osmosis-the academic, social, financial, historical, and cultural facts and feel of the university in equal measure.

 

Presidential Transitions stresses the importance of having someone for the incoming president to talk to-someone who knows him or her, who is a friend, but who is also a realist. Whether the transition is inbound or outgoing-and I have looked at both sides now-nothing is more valuable. Making sense of any novel challenge is always difficult. Dealing with doubt or delusion can be equally debilitating and derailing. Whether we call it a reality check or a heart-to-heart makes no difference: some private and intimate conversation can clear the eyesight and the insight wonderfully well.

 

But I hasten to add that there is nothing touchy-feely about Presidential Transitions. The authors' approach is workmanlike, relying on step-by-step procedures-all of which are handily summarized in an appendix-to organize the wheels and gears of the transition for the new president, the board of trustees, the senior staff, and the faculty. They cover everything from the search for a new president to the transition of the outgoing president in patient detail. Thus, it is not surprising that the number of steps the authors outline is overwhelming, but they are not naïve and state at the beginning that new presidents, and others, should pick those particular reviews, audits, and tactics that fit them-and the institution, for its part, should do the same. If some of the steps they outline for new presidents seem obvious-e.g., talk to people, consult your mentor, hold off on laying out your "vision"-it seems to me that leaving out the obvious could marginalize the utilitarian or even incline some to overlook important components of a complex process. Better to be thorough, and the authors are.

 

Their thoroughness extends to providing primary sources for their research on transitions in the form of transcribed interviews with presidents, past presidents, and others. What their subjects have to say is personal and specific to a time and place and may not apply in all cases, naturally, but it is helpful to read how these individuals faced different problems or novelties and easy enough to see analogies in one's own experience. The inclusion of these interviews, all of which are apposite to the authors' narrative, enriches their research and adds a level of validation.

 

It is also, and unfortunately, possible to be too thorough, which leads to one of the few criticisms I have of the book. The authors devote a 25-page chapter to "Avoiding Mishaps And Self-inflicted Wounds." There is no harm, I suppose, in reminding new presidents not to plagiarize, spend university money on personal expenses, drink to excess, smoke dope, or be overtly lecherous- or at least not to get caught doing things of this (alas too human) nature. Too many presidents seem to have forgotten, but a paragraph or two would have sufficed.

Perhaps I feel this way because I have recently ceased to be a university president after 30 years-11 at the University of Hartford and 19 at The George Washington University-without ever having been indicted for a crime or accused of an ethical lapse. So far, so good. In this way, I am very like most of my present and former brother and sister presidents. Our failings incline to lie elsewhere.

 

We run into more problems with our boards of trustees (or overseers, visitors, and fellows), especially at times of transition. Sanaghan, Goldstein, and Gaval have made a point of laying out the responsibilities of board members during both searches and transitions, and I applaud them for doing so. If I had to recommend Presidential Transitions to one specific audience, it would be board members: I would like them-I would like to require them-to read this book. In my own experience and in the experience of many colleagues over 30 years, boards have rarely done enough to make the search and transition as smooth and, more to the point, as reliable and effective as possible. Again, as they do for presidents, the authors offer step-by-step plans for how the board should deal with any contingency-or nearly so.

 

>From my emeritus vantage point, I would certainly add one thing for the board to give the president: a discretionary fund, the size of which would of course depend on the comparative wealth of the institution, but for a school similar to The George Washington University I think the number should be about $5 million. It sounds like a lot at first blush; it is not. The new president is going to be greeted with requests, grossly overt or fairly subtle, for things of value to  the faculty and administration. These will not be for a building or 10 new tenure-track positions, but rather comparatively modest requests-some of them actually worthy-for, say, specialized business software or funds for an academic conference on campus. They will not, in other words, be the sunk costs or permanent obligations of bricks and mortar and personnel, but once-and-only-once expenditures for something immediately useful to the operation, prestige, efficiency, or comfort of the university and, thus, deeply appreciated by faculty, students, and staff. Mind you, however, that modest expenses like these add up quickly, and having the money to satisfy a number of highly visible projects requested by faculty and staff will pay off.

 

The skeptical reader may think he or she is sniffing out a slush fund or a series of bribes in my suggestion. He or she is nearly correct. New university presidents, whatever their credentials and reputations, will always and inevitably face a period of curiosity, bordering on suspicion. It can be reduced to something like this: "So what has the new guy done for me?" The discretionary fund would provide the means to answer that question many times over. It will not buy off anyone or purchase loyalty, let alone love, but it will add a cushion of hospitality to the natural wariness of all members of the community during the first months of the new president's tenure.

 

If there is to be a second edition of the book-and it deserves a wide audience-I would like to see one emendation and one addition. The emendation concerns students. The authors do not suggest including students in the 360º feedback process, in gathering information before the new president arrives, or in getting the lowdown on what's happening on campus. They should: students have a lot of observations about what's happening now; moreover, the university exists to instruct them and continues to exist because they pay tuition. They do suggest including students in the presidential search. I'm not keen on that. The students who participate will probably be gone when the new president arrives, and students' outlooks are necessarily short term. But, of course, politics and optics may argue to the contrary. I prefer recent graduates to play the youth role.

 

The addition concerns the president who has made the transition to ex-president. He or she may experience a version of postpartum depression; expect it and find someone to talk to. He or she may incline to schadenfreude in the first acts of the new president; resist this, since it does no one any good at all. If the new president has problems, they are not yours, so let them be. Finally, he or she needs to get over the loss of prestige or perks. It happened to me: Shortly after I left the presidency of The George Washington University, I met former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. A concerned friend, she asked me what I missed most, and I told her my car and driver. She looked at me-with pity? contempt? suppressed giggles?-and said, "Steve, I had a private plane."

 

Of course, our situations, along with our pleasures and pains, are not identical, but have common denominators. Sanaghan, Goldstein, and Gaval have recognized the distinctions and the similarities in presidential transitions across a broad reach of institutions and, with tact and modesty, have made their findings useful on any campus.