As a professor of classics with a double deanship at UC Berkeley, Ralph J. Hexter made a habit of ignoring frequent inquiries from academic search firms and acquaintances at other institutions. Hexter was not without ambition, but he valued his work and his life at Berkeley.
Then came an overture in late 2004 from a small liberal arts college in western Massachusetts. Llamas grazed on the fields at Hampshire College, and the president’s house had a barn where Hexter and his partner could keep their three horses. Students devised their own majors and received written evaluations from professors, not letter grades. Nearly all the 1,350 students knew their president by first name.
Intrigued, Hexter sent a discreet nod indicating his interest.
And so began a complex, carefully orchestrated courtship. Finding the right person to run a college or university is matchmaking on a grand scale. Like all aspiring college presidents, Hexter underwent intense vetting and engaged in scrupulous mutual inspection. He traveled to the campus to face tough questioning from students and faculty. Once selected, he mulled over the formal offer at an elegant dinner in San Francisco with a delegation from Hampshire who took the red-eye to persuade Hexter that he was their man.
Ultimately -- as is usually the case when colleges and universities seek new presidents -- the decision rested as much on chemistry as academic credentials.
“The process, as I have come to understand it, is both cumbersome and exhilarating and works only if pragmatism, etiquette and ardor occupy their rightful places,” Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser wrote in the alumni magazine after serving on the search committee that chose Hexter, 54, as the school’s fifth president.
The endeavor routinely slogs on for a year, ringing in a wide cast of characters who all have an interest in the new leader. One standard feature is the airport interview, where dozens of semifinalists cycle through a faceless hotel conference room, seeking some spark with the search committee.
Parts of the romance are highly public, but the heavy wooing is conducted in such secrecy that participants sometimes sign agreements never to discuss it. Only politicians endure comparable scrutiny from so many unrelated factions -- faculty, administrators, alumni, trustees and students. Even parents and community advocates whose only connection is proximity often get a voice, almost as if clerks at Wal-Mart or the neighbors of a big-box store got to vote on the CEO.
“It is almost incomprehensible to business people why we go through this,” said Deborah Raizes, head of the committee seeking a new president at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. “They ask me, ‘Why would you let people who are going to be working for someone have a say in who their boss will be?’ ”
College presidencies have always been high-status positions -- round-the-clock jobs saddled with nonstop demands from a cacophony of constituencies. But in today’s global economy, colleges and universities are jousting for leaders as never before.
“American higher education is no longer presumed to be the No. 1 higher-ed system in the world,” said Richard Legon, president of the Assn. of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges in Washington. “We are competing more aggressively to reclaim that distinction. That requires more of a president and his or her time, and breadth of skills, than heretofore has been the case....A president today is being asked to carry out his or her responsibilities in a very different environment.”
The choice of a president can shift the way a school is viewed. A dynamic leader can attract and retain star faculty, add buildings and boost applications by giving the school a “hot” reputation. In a time of billion-dollar endowments, a president can also make the difference between big donations and assets that stay static.
In his 20-plus years of helping place presidents, Boston search consultant John Isaacson has seen an evolution in the role of these leaders and their schools. Universities have always trained people, Isaacson said, “but now they invent the future.”
The enlarged demands make the quest for a president all the more difficult, said Daniel Cheever, who retired July 1 as president of Boston’s Simmons College. “It is unusual that a single individual will have all the qualities needed for this job,” he said.
Indeed, Harvard University’s overseers thought they had the ideal 21st century president in economist Lawrence H. Summers. But after just five years -- most of them mired in controversy -- the former Treasury secretary left the job June 30. His assertive personality caused a revolt among faculty, who cast a rare no-confidence vote, calling him tyrannical and autocratic.
But when Summers left, some big donors bolted as well. Among them was Oracle Corp. Chief Executive Larry Ellison, who canceled a $115-million bequest, saying he had “lost confidence” that his money would be well spent.
“In some ways it’s amazing that these jobs get filled,” said Shelly Storbeck, managing director and vice president at A.T. Kearney, a search company in Alexandria, Va. “Trying to find candidates that fit the needs and specifications of the institution, and are willing to do the job -- that just doesn’t happen every day.”
The ideal president is a brilliant scholar who has climbed the administrative ranks, preferably to the level of vice president or provost (second in command to the president). Most college presidents are in their 50s. About 22% of major colleges and universities are led by women, according to the American Council on Education.
Although some presidents also come from “nontraditional” backgrounds, largely government and business, scientists usually have the edge at major research institutions.
Scientists carry high credibility, said Isaacson, and are seen as speaking the language of the future. Trustees also assume a scientist will bring in grant money -- which is vastly larger in science and technology than in the humanities -- and oversee the development of large labs and other facilities that help raise a school’s profile.
After scientists come lawyers, philosophers and classicists, such as Hexter. “People think that if you do classics, you are smart, and you are at the heart of the liberal tradition,” Isaacson said. “These people also are good at the culture wars.”
A survey from the Chronicle of Higher Education found the average presidential salary was around $250,000. The perks of the job generally include a car and a house.
Cheever, the former president of Simmons, said these benefits came at a price.
“You feel you’re doing important work. You meet wonderful people,” Cheever said. “But in terms of personal lifestyle, it’s not a great deal of fun.... These big old houses are filled with people who are sitting on your chairs and using your bathrooms. There’s no privacy.... I don’t know a great number of presidents who really love the job. You say you love it because you have to.”
Barring predawn emergencies, the president’s day starts with a working breakfast and proceeds to one meeting after another. After all the grand talk about academic mission in the presidential search process, most of the work centers around raising money, so much so that some presidents limit their weekly schedules to 15 “eating opportunities,” the code for fundraising meals.
Presidents also make speeches. They appear on television. They converse with their counterparts on other campuses. They sign budgets and cater to trustees’ demands.
In an increasingly entitled and invasive universe, they may return from lunch to find themselves facing a student who did not get into Psych 101 or an athlete who did not make starting quarterback. The next phone call could be from a disgruntled parent whose daughter hates her roommate.
“The job somehow mushroomed to these monumental, 24-hour proportions,” said search consultant Alberto Pimentel of A.T. Kearney in Los Angeles. “Your life basically belongs to the university.” Pimentel helped Occidental College in Los Angeles find Susan Westerberg Prager, who became president July 1.
The search typically begins with what Pimentel calls “passive recruitment.” An ad appears in a professional journal, followed by feelers from consultants seeking recommendations. When the recruitment turns active, consultants contact contenders directly, “making sure we are reaching out not just to likely suspects, but reaching out in terms of diversity, so that the committee has a good group from which to select.”
Starting with verification of academic credentials, would-be presidents undergo meticulous background checks. They are screened to avoid potential embarrassments such as academic scandals, bankruptcies, drunk-driving arrests, ugly divorces or episodes of sexual harassment.
Search firms generally charge about one-third of a president’s first-year salary, Pimentel said. Although search committee members are not paid, the process can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars when expenses such as candidates’ travel are tallied.
As head of the search committee for his alma mater, venture capitalist David Berkus said he put at least 1,000 hours into the hunt that lured Prager from UCLA to Occidental. Beyond his own hours, Berkus said a 19-person search committee met 16 times in the course of the year. Each meeting lasted about four hours and required extensive reading in advance.
“I have been the president of several businesses. I am chairman of six boards,” said Berkus, who lives in Los Angeles. “In business I would never allow this kind of unfocused time.”
The process of searching for a president has changed significantly, he said.
“I think we realized this is not an isolated decision as it had been in the past, made typically by trustees with maybe a small nod to students,” Berkus said. “This was much more collaborative.”
Almost a year after he was inaugurated as Hampshire College’s president on a rainy October morning, Hexter used the language of love to describe what brought him there. As one of four finalists invited to visit the pastoral campus, Hexter said, he was swept away by the 36-year-old school’s focus on social justice. He was captivated by its setting amid farmland, forests and apple orchards.
Though he had flourished at the much larger UC Berkeley, he was infatuated with Hampshire’s sense of intimacy.
But falling in love also brought surprises. At a “meet the candidate” forum, the slender, gray-haired classicist said, he was taken aback by how brash some students were. The first student who interrogated him, Hexter said, wanted his vision for Hampshire, admonishing him not to “use any of the usual cliches, like ‘excellence,’ or ‘distinctiveness.’ ”
“I felt myself almost stagger backwards, because it was so, so disrespectful,” Hexter said. “It was so direct. There was no deference at all. But I was also refreshed and excited that a student would feel comfortable asking a question like that.”
In a process that drew equally from the mind and the heart, Hexter recognized the moment as part of a test: “And I passed it.”