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Presidential Search Committee Checklist

By Muriel E. Poston

The search for a new president is one of the most significant instances of shared governance in the life of a college or university, but it is also one of the most challenging. Although governing boards have the legal responsibility for selection of a president, the process of selection is fundamental in determining which candidate has the appropriate academic leadership and administrative skills needed to lead the institution. The recognition of shared responsibility in the search process for academic administrators is reflected in the American Association of University Professors’ 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities:

Joint effort of a most critical kind must be taken when an institution chooses a new president. The selection of a chief administrative officer should follow upon a cooperative search by the governing board and the faculty, taking into consideration the opinions of others who are appropriately interested.

AAUP’s 1981 Faculty Participation in the Selection, Evaluation,and Retention of Administrators articulates the importance of faculty participation:

The Statement on Government emphasizes the primary role of faculty and board in the search for a president. The search may be initiated either by separate committees of the faculty and board or by a joint committee of the faculty and board or of faculty, board, students, and others; and separate committees may subsequently be joined. In a joint committee, the numbers from each constituency should reflect both the primacy of faculty concern and the range of other groups, including students, that have legitimate claim to some involvement. Each group should select its own members to serve on the committee, and the rules governing the search should be arrived at jointly. A joint committee should determine the size of the majority which will be controlling in making the appointment. When separate committees are used, the board, with which the legal authority rests, should either select a name from among those submitted by the faculty committee or should agree that no person will be chosen over the objections of the faculty committee.

The following is intended as a practical guide for implementation of these principles in the search for a president.

Search Committees

The board of trustees, working with the faculty, creates the search committee structure and defines the charge of the committee. The committee may be formed as a single entity representing both the faculty and the board, or there may be a two-tiered committee structure. In the latter case, the faculty committee—which may include other constituent groups such as students and alumni—is separate from the board committee. However, a single committee representing the faculty and board is the most common standard. Such a committee provides an opportunity for shared perspectives and broader understanding among the various groups and thus fosters a sense of unity in accomplishing a common goal—identifying a president who is qualified to serve as both the chief academic and the chief executive officer of the institution.

  • Committee Composition. Representatives from the board and faculty, as well as representatives of other institutional constituencies, commonly serve on joint search committees. Because faculty play a significant role, their representation on the committee should not be limited to a single member. The precise number is dependent on the size of the committee but should reflect the primacy of faculty concern in determining presidential leadership. The involvement of administrators on the search committee is problematic and should be discouraged since they may represent the perspective of the outgoing administration.
  • Committee Chair. The chair appointment is typically made prior to the formation of the search committee. The joint search committee chair is typically chosen by the board and is usually a trustee who can provide an important connection between the board and the search committee. In cases where a two-tiered committee structure is utilized, a trustee chairs the board committee and a senior faculty member chairs the constituent group committee.
  • Committee Selection. Each constituent group should select its own members to serve on the committee. This gives the greatest sense of legitimacy to the members and acknowledges the respective roles of the constituent groups.
  • Committee Size. The size of a joint search committee will vary according to the institution but may range from nine to twenty. Larger committees are not necessarily less effective, and a good process is considerably more important than the size in determining a successful outcome. In cases of a two-tiered committee structure, the individual committees are smaller.
  • Committee Charge. The search committee charge is formulated by the board, in consultation with other constituents, and reflects the role of the board in making the selection of the president and in defining the terms and conditions of the appointment. The charge also will set forth other criteria such as:
      -search committee membership
      -statement of presidential leadership qualities
      -breadth of the search: regional or national
      -expectations regarding use of search consultants
      -number of candidates to be recommended to the board for the final decision
      -date by which the board expects recommendations of nominees

Search Process

The search committee has the responsibility of designing its own procedures and timetables. The basic functions of a search involve the identification of candidates; screening and interviewing; and the recommendation of a short list of candidates to the board for consideration. Key factors that should be considered in structuring the search process are:

  • Search consultants. If executive recruiters or consultants are to be utilized, their selection (or that of a search firm) is one of the first tasks of the committee, unless this decision has already been mandated by the board. A search consultant may be most helpful in educating the committee about the search process, providing a broader pool of candidates for consideration, or checking the candidate references beyond the scope of traditional academic criteria. However, the role of the search consultant should be clearly defined and should not extend into matters of educational or institutional policy. Search firms (which may be non-profit or for-profit organizations) and their consultants range from those that serve only educational institutions to those that have an education division within a large executive search firm. It is important to interview the potential search firms, preferably those staff members who would be assigned to the presidential search, to determine if the match is appropriate to the institutional characteristics and needs. References of the search firm candidates should be contacted. Among the questions that might be asked: How successful were they in previous searches? What were their interactions with faculty and other constituent groups? Do they understand and support the role of faculty in the search process?
  • Confidentiality. The presidential selection process is a classic conflict between the right of individual privacy and the public's right to know. It is important for the campus community to know the procedures that the committee will use in the search process, and these should be made public early in the search. It is the responsibility of the search committee to keep constituent groups informed of the progress of the search. However, in order to attract the best candidates, the search process may involve some measure of confidentiality, especially during the early phases. The disclosure of candidates prior to the development of a short list of nominees to recommend to the board can result in the loss of the best candidates. However, to ensure a successful search, the nominees who are recommended to the board should visit the campus and be interviewed by the faculty and possibly other constituent groups. The approach to implementing confidentiality and the process and guidelines for campus visits are matters to be resolved early on in the search process.
  • Institutional Analysis and Leadership Criteria. The search committee should spend some time defining the present condition of the college or university, determining what problems must be faced, what priorities the institution has, and what direction it must take to meet its challenges and opportunities. This institutional analysis is needed in order to determine the type of leadership qualities needed for this particular stage in the college or university’s development. The leadership criteria statement defines the principal qualities that are required in the new president--an academic leader, an experienced fund raiser, etc. The statement of leadership criteria should be circulated to various institutional constituencies for review and comment. Consensus within the campus community on the leadership qualities is important since these criteria are used in evaluating candidates' credentials and again in the and interview process.

Sources of Potential Candidates

In most instances, institutions engage in a comprehensive search. Casting the net broadly includes soliciting nominations from faculty, administrators, and alumni; running advertisements in national journals; and, if an executive recruiting firm is engaged, using the search consultant to identify candidates for review. The issue of confidentiality will again be raised during this step in the process since some nominees, particularly those who are currently successfully leading an institution, may not wish to be identified as candidates.


The purpose of screening is to identify a limited number of candidates from the applicant pool. In the first phase, the list is commonly reduced to fifteen to twenty-five names, in the second stage, to eight to ten names. The final stage of the process involves selecting candidates whom the committee will recommend to the board. Issues to be considered in the screening process are:

  • Background and reference checks. The search committee may charge a subcommittee with checking the references of the fifteen to twenty-five candidates selected after the initial screening of credentials. These are generally the references provided by the candidate. In this phase of the search process, the committee usually refrains from contacting other possible sources of information out of respect for the candidate's privacy. In the case of the eight to ten candidates who become semi-finalists, additional sources of information beyond those listed by the candidate may be contacted. A search consultant may be useful at this point in the referencing process, particularly for conducting criminal and media background checks. In the final phase of screening, anyone who might be able to provide useful information on the candidate's leadership qualifications should be contacted. Referencing by faculty members of the search committee who can contact their counterparts at the candidate's campus is particularly crucial at this stage. Background information at this point can be obtained not only from telephone calls but also from visits to the candidate's campus.
  • Interviewing. The interviewing process may occur in two stages. In order to preserve confidentiality, there may be off-campus interviews with the semi-finalist candidates. Direct contact between the candidates and the search committee is important. The second stage of the interview process involves campus visits where the candidate will meet with different constituencies, particularly faculty and students. These open visits are crucial in the success of the search process because they permit members of the campus community to participate in providing impressions, as well as to contribute to the candidate's understanding of the culture of the institution. In this final phase of the selection process, open visits present vitally important opportunities for both the campus community and the candidate to determine each other's suitability. This final step is extraordinarily useful to the search committee in making its final recommendation to the board.

Final Recommendation

The search committee, depending on its charge, may recommend only one candidate to the board. A committee that has conscientiously fulfilled its duty will recognize the best candidate, one who "fits" the institution, and will be able to convince the board of the wisdom of its recommendation. On the other hand, a successful search committee may be able to identify three or more candidates who would make an excellent president. The final act in the search process is the appointment of the president, a decision usually made by the full board.

This checklist is intended as a brief guideline for the presidential search process. The search itself is an opportunity for a university or college to take stock, consider new directions, and identify the individual best suited to lead the institution into its future.


Judith B. McLaughlin and David Riesman, Choosing a College President: Opportunities and Constraints (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1990).

Barbara Leondar and Charles B. Neff; Presidential Search (Washington, D.C.: Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, 1992).