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"Getting It Right": A Conversation about the Presidential Search Process with Shelly Storbeck

In September Managing Partner Shelly Storbeck participated in “Getting It Right,” a virtual panel discussion on the topic of organizing a college or university president search.

Randy Helm, former president of Muhlenberg College, moderated the discussion, and Bill Torrey, former chief academic officer of Bowdoin College and Bentley University, joined in. 

To start, Shelly, Bill, and Randy took up a question posed recently by Inside Higher Ed: If governing boards conduct presidential searches in “secrecy” – that is, keeping the names of prospective candidates confidential – do they risk inciting the anger and distrust of faculty and other campus constituents? And are search consultants who recommend confidentiality at fault?

Randy offered that “[C]onfidentiality differs from secrecy and has been a common feature of most presidential searches for a very long time.”

Shelly emphasized that boards and search committees, not the hired search consultants, are the “central decision makers.” She also noted that search firms have an obvious and “very strong” incentive to conduct a successful search: “that’s how we get more work!”

The conversation turned to the subject of the process itself, and how to lay the groundwork for a successful search. Shelly noted that many institutions “now announce about 1.5 years in advance in order to allow the consultant and committee to do work in the spring and then work during the summer.  Ideal time to start a search is about March, with a conclusion around Thanksgiving.”

Shelly provided helpful details about the board’s role and the makeup of the search committee.  Randy asked, “How does the search firm ensure it understands the client’s institutional culture and leadership needs?”

Shelly responded, “We typically spend 1-2 days on campus and also have an executive session with the board. We also create on-line surveys for anyone to respond to, who may not be available to talk with on campus. It’s in our best interest to have as many voices as possible at the table.”

The conversation, which was honest and lively, touched on a number of additional topics, such as choosing the search chair, writing the position description, building a diverse candidate pool, and the critical final steps in the appointment process.

If your institution is about to launch a search and you’re highly curious about the nuts and bolts of the search process, you will find “Getting It Right” in its entirety here.