The market for potential replacements for departing University of Missouri System President Elson Floyd is small, commands high salaries and faces immense fundraising pressure due to tight state budgets, industry experts said.
These conditions have forced colleges and universities to take a different approach to finding replacements, and, in the process, led search committees to re-examine the role of a university president
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“There is a shift toward more corporate-like presidents, in terms of their ability to think overall about the product, price, the institution’s position in the market,” said Richard Allen, president of RPA Inc., an executive search consulting firm that specializes in higher education.
Acting as a chief executive officer requires university presidents to manage large and disparate work forces while also accruing capital in the form of private donations, said Clare Van Ummersen, vice president of the American Council on Education’s Center for Executive excellence, which conducts analysis of policy for higher education.
“With all of the issues swirling around higher education,” Van Ummersen said, “especially with many states facing funding crises, the issue of fundraising large amounts of private dollars has become a critical part of any search.”
For years, it was a necessity for presidents at private colleges to raise money, Van Ummersen said. However, withering government spending on higher education has created a budget gap in the nation’s major public universities. As a result, colleges and universities want a president who spends less time managing employees and more time filling school coffers.
Many presidents at public universities concurred with this assessment. A 2002 survey of university presidents by ACE found that 76.1 percent of top college administrators at public-doctoral institutions listed fundraising as their top priority.
“In order to build facilities, to expand programs, to keep them competitive and fund research to attract faculty, presidents are really having to refocus their efforts,” Van Ummerson said.
While there is consensus on what skill is in demand, finding those candidates is another matter.
“The number of people who have the ability to meet the high demands of the position are small, the demand definitely outstrips the supply,” Allen said. “Often, schools have to pay more than they had originally thought to retain a good president, and, even still, people will notice their work, and they can be recruited by other institutions.”
The issue of pay has become the top-priority of candidates, said Allen E. Koenig, a senior consultant at R.H. Perry and Associates, a higher education executive search firm. In the past, schools would woo a candidate with their programs and general prestige and then talk money, but now it is common practice for most institutions and candidates to quote their price up front before discussing anything else.
He said this is just one aspect of the modern recruiting reality that the UM System must be prepared for as it embarks on its search.
“I would certainly advise them to do a good pre-search study to make sure they’ve come to a consensus in determining the characteristics and criteria as a proper blueprint for their search,” he said. “Most importantly, they need to determine a salary range as soon as they can.”
The salary range for college presidents varies, but on average it falls between $400,000 and $499,000, according to a study by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Floyd’s compensation package was $436,000 each year.
But Koenig said there is more to the president’s salary than the final figure. Packages frequently offered to most candidates include an array of benefits such as signing bonuses, incentive bonuses hinging on performance and tied to base salary, and deferred compensation. In most instances, incentives are front loaded onto contracts as enticement for exemplary performance, followed by deferred compensation on the back end as a reward for excellent service.
Aside from the market, the political climate university presidents face also contributes to the presidential search.
Both Allen and Van Ummersen said universities want leaders who feel comfortable facing the scrutiny of governing boards, state legislatures, faculty and alumni.
“While experience with financial management and student affairs is helpful,” Allen said, “those things are not as high as priorities. You don’t have to be able to balance the budget or build a budget, there are people to do that for you.”
In trying to meet these needs, searches are now akin to a nationwide scavenger hunt, Van Ummersen said.
“It’s a matter of going wherever candidates are available,” she said
All the experts said the UM System is an attractive situation for many prospective candidates due to its four-campuses and large enrollment.
Van Ummersen said she would not be surprised if a vacancy like the one at the UM System drew 100 to 150 applications. If the system works with a firm, the school can expect a list of 20 potential candidates.
Koenig said the UM System’s credentials will speak for themselves when the search effort begins in earnest for Floyd’s replacement.
“I think the position is obviously an attractive one that will draw interest,” Koenig said. “You’re in a state that’s had quite a good tradition of higher education and academic success.”
The use of executive search firms is popular. From 1995 to 1998, almost half of university presidential searches were conducted using a consultant, the ACE survey found. In 2002, that number rose to nearly 70 percent.
Van Ummersen said that the corporate style search has become prevalent for several reasons. First, executive search agencies are in place to check references, vet resumes and credentials and conduct preliminary interviews. Next, the prevalence of media coverage has turned an issue that often took place on campus and received little fanfare into a widely considered issue.
This coverage has also made it hard for an institution conducting a search to do so discretely.
“With the pool so small and the scrutiny so large, corporate firms are able to talk with individuals without people knowing,” she said.