The search for MSI presidents continues to be a daunting task as institutions struggle with declining enrollments, governmental support, increased alumni concerns, and smaller donation pools. Coupled with the fact that, according to American Council on Education’s On the Pathway to the Presidency (2013), more than 60% of college presidents are at retirement age, and the presidential selection pool is shrinking, it may be time to cast the ‘net’ a little wider when recruiting the next generation of MSI presidents.
That said, despite the limited presidential selection pool, chief student affairs officers (CSAOs) are least likely to be selected for appointment. In fact, in 2007 fewer than 200 college presidents listed CSAO as one of their two prior positions. Additionally, in my dissertation research, where a sample of executive search firm partners was interviewed, one of the most compelling findings was that search firms often overlook even seasoned student affairs executives as viable presidential candidates. Some firms reported that they would never even consider a CSAO for the post.
Five recent presidential hires, however, may signal a trend in hiring for MSI chiefs with student affairs backgrounds. While this is not an exhaustive list, these five presidents serve as interesting case studies:
- Kevin Rome accepted his first presidency this fall at Lincoln University (Missouri) after serving in three consecutive posts as senior student affairs officer. In his most recent position at North Carolina Central University, he implemented retention initiatives focusing on student satisfaction. The Eagle Service Center, for instance, is a “one-stop shop” model that is being implemented widely as it ensures students receive efficient support services from a central location.
- Dwaun Warmack began his tenure at Harris-Stowe State University this summer, after serving, among other roles, as the chief student affairs officer at Bethune-Cookman University. Warmack brought a student-centered, data-driven approach to the institution that resulted in years of record enrollments even in the face of what many called the “Parent Plus Loan debacle.”
- Logan C. Hampton was recently hired as the 10th president of Lane College. Prior to this appointment, he held the position of vice president for student affairs at University of Arkansas – Little Rock. During his time at UA-LR it is reported that he greatly improved student services, programs and facilities.
- Brian O. Hemphill is the 10th president at West Virginia State University. The former student affairs chief at Northern Illinois University, he is a nationally known practitioner and scholar on issues of student development, retention, and community concerns. His vision: “West Virginia State University will become the most student-centered, research and teaching, land-grant University in the state.” Dr. Hemphill also recently received a five-year contract extension after a successful start to his tenure.
- Walter Kimbrough enters his third year at Dillard University after a successful stead as president of Philander Smith College (PSC). Kimbrough’s tenure at PSC included improvements to the physical plant, increases in the endowment, and alumni giving. However, most impressive may have been his legacy of a more socially conscious student body. Additionally, his intentional engagement on the social media front has also garnered national attention with prospective/current students and the popular media.
The common thread in the career paths for these presidents is their preparation in student affairs administration. Additionally, these candidates have exhibited qualities that are needed to advance the mission and sustainability of MSIs. These skills include: student engagement, increasing alumni giving, data-driven decision making, and success in enrollment management.
That said, in the hiring of these candidates, do we see a hiring trend for MSIs emerging? What would this trend say about the evolving priorities and commitment of presidential search committees? Do these selections suggest that there is a renewed focus by MSIs on our most important asset and resource: students? Should search firms look more closely at executives in student affairs for presidential candidates? Possibly. However, further research is needed to assess the effectiveness of these professionals after three to five years on the job to determine if this is a trend worth noting. Kimbrough and Hemphill’s success at PSC, Dillard and WVSU, respectively, may be a strong indicator of the positive outcomes of a student affairs-trained leader at the helm.
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