Erin Konkle

Erin Konkle


 An unusual number of college presidencies are up for grabs [1]. Rapid changes in the higher education landscape, increasing scrutiny paired with wavering public support amid the rising costs of a degree, and the substantial disruption of Covid-19 to college campuses are all likely factors contributing to turnover in the top job. An open presidency can be both an opportunity for the incoming college President and the institution if they are ready to work together, and a disruptive time for an institution if the transition is not well handled. In 2023, dozens of new college Presidents will be inaugurated and will bring with them to their new institutional home excitement, change, and a little trepidation. At CFAR, we have been supporting new college Presidents and their leadership teams for more than 40, and have written about it as well.

Here is some of what we have learned about leveraging this transitional moment and positioning the college President and the institution for a successful future.

Set the strategy
Developing strategy as the President settles in is essential, and engaging the organization in collective ownership and alignment around that strategy is critical. Transitions often trigger apprehension within an institution, and strategy can help to transform that anxiety into excitement around a shared purpose. Every new college President will bring their own priority areas and agendas in service of the shared mission. Framing the work already underway in the broad context of the mission will help the institution adjust quickly to new priorities. Senior leaders who bring their teams along with them within the institution will play a pivotal role in setting up the new President—and their strategy—for success.

Build the team
Develop leadership potential—throughout the organization—through informal networks, formal programs, and executive coaching. Uncertainty and anxiety come with the territory of a top leadership change. Identify leaders across campus who are enthusiastic about the work ahead and charge them as champions. Invite colleagues across campus to identify areas within their own work where elements of the new President’s strategy already exist and learn from these “found pilots.” Found pilots are examples of your desired future that already exist in the present. Working with your team to identify and amplify existing initiatives will help you create more of what already works.

Get governance right
Shared governance environments are a defining feature of higher education and are not without challenges. Political forces might be at odds with faculty interests or increasing student needs might overwhelm available resources causing tension and conflict. The challenge lies in recognizing the differing—and legitimate—interests of different stakeholders and steering them toward the shared strategy. Assessing governance (board and larger systems), creating a shared vision, and building a roadmap for the future will help new college Presidents work collaboratively with their Boards to advance institutional priorities.

Pay attention to culture
Becoming the kind of organization that you want to be in the future—sustainable, equitable, selective, accessible, and more—will require a strong institutional culture to support the necessary changes to get there.

Culture dictates how work gets done and often is a mirror that shows organizations their deeply held beliefs. Even the best strategy won’t get very far if the institutional culture is not ready to support it. Often when strategy stalls during implementation, examining culture will exhibit important clues as to why. Intentionally shaping culture throughout the transition and strategy development process is critical to the success of every new President.

We have developed methods and tools particularly useful in complex settings such as universities with multiple campuses, heavy political influence, and diffuse power where change depends on enlisting other people. New college Presidents need a strong and trusted team, an enthusiastic campus, and a compelling vision for the future that fits with the institution’s mission and values. Those elements don’t just occur by happenstance, they have to be cultivated.

Develop leaders across the institution—not just top down but bottom up, too.

Validate differences in interests while creating new ways of working productively toward the shared strategy.

Empower individuals to come to contribute to the whole.

When strategy is driven by a strong leadership team, supported by functional governance, and converges with the campus culture, new college Presidents and their institutions will thrive together.

If you have any thoughts or questions to share with us about this piece or higher education and leadership, email us at


[1] Whitford, Emma. “As More College Presidents Quit, Search Firms Prosper.” Forbes, September 9, 2022.