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Many former presidents write memoirs describing their successes (and only occasionally their failures and shortcomings), offering advice based on their own experience. Although written by a president emeritus, this book moves well beyond the usual focus on one person in one institution. In addressing the challenges of presidential leadership, Susan Resneck Pierce benefits from many perspectives: from her own successful presidency to her post-presidential experience as a consultant to boards, presidents, and executive leadership teams. This book is a compendium of important insights and essential information for college and university presidents and for those who work closely with them.

Paradoxically, the book begins with a litany of presidential disasters, many of which are so obvious as to make you wonder how people smart enough to reach the college presidency could behave so stupidly. The answer is that their missteps represent an accumulation of errors in judgment, not just one. They are the consequence of the traps that all presidents face: the illusion of power; the seduction of flattery; and the slippage from curiosity and learning to impatience and certitude, and from self-confidence to arrogance.

Although organizational charts show the presidency as the apex position, successful presidents quickly learn that the ability to effect change does not come from positional power. They must engage in ongoing negotiations with multiple constituencies, have an awareness of the symbolic role of leadership, and empower others. Susan Pierce identifies many of the dilemmas that presidents encounter while trying to find the right balance points in the course of their work. How quickly should new presidents make major decisions? When should they, as well as longer-term presidents, consult with others or make decisions more quickly and independently? How can “shared governance” best be accomplished with the board of trustees and the faculty?

Susan Pierce offers wise counsel on all aspects of the presidency, from raising money to living in the “fishbowl”—both aspects of the job that newcomers find daunting. She offers compelling stories that capture the nuances of issues, and she gives pragmatic advice on how presidents can best traverse this complex terrain. Lest presidents or presidential aspirants grow discouraged by the many problems and predicaments they face, Pierce's chapter on the pleasures of the presidency provides a helpful antidote. I remember my experience as chair of the Harvard Seminar for New Presidents during its initial year in 1990, when many of the presenters tried to “lighten” their sessions by telling jokes about the travails of the presidency. About two-thirds of the way through the week, several new presidents came up to me and said that the job couldn't possibly be so bleak, could it, if these enormously capable presidents remained in it? From then on, I asked the presidents to talk more about the satisfactions of the position, something they readily agreed to do—because despite the very real challenges of the presidency, they loved their work. Pierce identifies many rewarding aspects of the job while also cautioning presidents to take their work but not themselves too seriously. As Stephen Sweeny, former president of the College of New Rochelle, has often advised new presidents in the Harvard Seminar, the presidency is “a privileged position, not a position of privilege.”

Drawing upon her expertise as a search consultant, Pierce offers boards of trustees and presidential aspirants excellent advice on presidential searches. But one of this book's most important contributions is Pierce's discussion of the “other end” of the presidential transition, the presidential departure. Much less has been written on this crucial time, a passage fraught with hazards for individuals and institutions. Many presidents are unsure how to decide when it is time to leave. Longer-term presidents especially can have a hard time letting go. As Pierce explains cogently, the job has become their life and their identity. Staying on campus should not be an option, however. Although boards of trustees may consider this practice benign or even helpful to the new president, it is at best a complication and at worst a serious hindrance to the leadership of the new incumbent.

Very talented and capable people leave presidencies with still many productive years ahead of them. We would do well to think about how higher education, government, national higher education associations, foundations, and think tanks could benefit from this substantial base of experience. Susan Pierce is an excellent case in point. Since her presidency, she has improved colleges and universities by her consultancies. With this book, she shares her wisdom even more broadly, enriching our understanding of the many dimensions of the work and the life of college presidents.

Judith Block McLaughlin
Harvard Graduate School of Education

In memory of Dory Resneck and Kenneth Pierce and for Sean Derek Siegel and Ryan Jacob Siegel


I spent a good part of my first day as president of the University of Puget Sound simply walking the hundred-acre campus. It was a glorious Pacific Northwest Sunday in July of 1992, and few people were around. I was struck that I had only once before felt the same overwhelming sense of responsibility: when my daughter, Sasha, had been born twenty years earlier. From the moment of her birth, I had never stopped thinking about her. I now recognized that as long as I was president, I would never stop thinking about the college.

A week later, I spent an hour getting my hair cut. The stylist asked if I needed to go back to work after the haircut. I said that I did. She then asked where I worked. I told her. She next asked what I did at the university. When I answered that I was the president, she asked what presidents did. I tried as concisely as I could to tell her. When I finished, she paused for a long time and then asked, “How did you get stuck with that job?”

I was right on that July Sunday: I would for the next eleven years as Puget Sound's president think unceasingly about the college. My hairdresser, on the other hand, was wrong because, far from feeling “stuck” with the job, I found it the most satisfying work of my career.

In the ensuing years, as I gained greater experience and also began to work closely with and observe other presidents, either as colleagues in various professional organizations, as a member of accreditation teams, or as a consultant, my answer to the question of what presidents do has become far more complex and nuanced than it was in the summer of 1992.

The Inspiration for This Book

This book, which in great part is intended to answer the question of what good presidents and trustees do, has been inspired not only by my experience at Puget Sound but also by my subsequent work. Specifically, within a year of leaving the university, I began “flunking retirement” and embarked on a new career as a writer and consultant. In the latter role, as president of SRP CONSULTING, I work with boards and presidents on such matters as governance, board development, and board effectiveness; advise colleges and universities on strategic planning; provide guidance to new presidents and their board chairs on a range of matters; and in one extended project, evaluated a sitting president with the board's charge that I seek to help him become more successful. In my role as a search consultant, I have facilitated searches for senior colleges and university administrators (more often than not presidents).

Prior to my presidency, I had been a faculty member, a dean, and then a chief academic officer. In the early 1980s I directed National Endowment for the Humanities programs that funded undergraduate education. I had done occasional consulting, served on accreditation teams, and was a member of a number of higher education boards and commissions.

In 2008 I began writing a series of essays for the online journal Inside Higher Ed about matters related to the role and responsibilities of presidents and trustees, and about searches for college and university presidents and vice presidents. I also began speaking at various national meetings about these same topics. The abundant and positive response to these essays and presentations from presidents, aspiring presidents, and trustees assured me that I was right in trying to address these issues in the more expanded way that a book would allow.


This book is intended for sitting presidents, aspiring presidents, trustees, senior administrators, members of the faculty, and members of presidential search committees, all of whom would, in my judgment, benefit the institutions they serve and enhance their effectiveness by having a clearer understanding of their various roles and responsibilities as well as a fuller understanding of those of the president. The book is also intended to describe the presidential search process, both to demystify it and to provide guidance to all those—search committee members and candidates themselves—who participate in this most important of efforts.

Structure of the Book and Overview

Although logic might suggest that this book begin with a discussion of the presidential search process, I have chosen instead to end it there, in great part because I see the search not as the beginning but rather as one part of a much more complex and important process. To appoint successful presidents, institutions must first become clear about their mission, their aspirations, their strengths, their opportunities and challenges, and presidents, boards, senior administrators, and faculty must all understand their roles, their responsibilities, and their (legitimate) expectations of one another.

In Part One, “Being an Effective President,” Chapter One begins with a series of cautionary tales, describing various ways in which presidents fail to provide effective leadership and boards fail to provide necessary support and oversight. At some point in my own career, I began to see that the negatives taught me the most. For example, I learned from several imperial presidents how important it was for me, when I became a president, to be accessible and genuinely engaged in the life of the institution. From an autocratic supervisor, I learned the importance of encouraging my colleagues to be creative. From a micromanaging acting president, I learned the importance of delegating. From a president who sought popularity above all else, I learned that it was more important to be respected than adored. Thus, I have chosen cautionary tales that I hope will inspire my readers to discover better ways of being a president.

Chapter Two sets out to clarify what it is that makes presidents and trustees effective. This chapter also contains a great many specific recommendations for how presidents and boards can work with each other.

Chapter Three focuses on the president's relationship with the various campus constituencies and the local community. Like Chapter Two, it seeks to define how presidents can be effective in relationship to each of these groups and also contains specific recommendations for how they can work with them.

Chapter Four is an even more pivotal chapter than it would have been a decade ago in its premise that successful presidents must be able both to raise money and to manage the institution's financial and human resources if they are to advance the institution's mission with fairness and a commitment to the long-term health of the college or university.

Chapter Five was prompted by a statistic in the ACE report A National Profile of Chief Academic Officers: 24 percent of current chief academic officers cite “living in a fishbowl” as one reason why they do not want to become presidents. My goal here is to describe honestly the challenges of being a public figure and offer suggestions for how presidents and their spouses or partners, if they have them, can craft private lives for themselves while living in a public context.

Chapter Six offers suggestions to departing presidents and their boards about how they can (and should) let go and leave gracefully. This chapter talks about some negative situations where presidents, even after voluntarily choosing to retire, attempted to continue to direct their institution. It also provides recommendations for positive and seamless presidential transitions.

Chapter Seven was one of the most enjoyable to write. It describes why so many of my presidential colleagues have found the work enormously satisfying. This chapter, which was informed by stories that a great many former and current presidents shared with me, as well as by my own experience, strives to explain why being a president can bring with it a wonderful sense of accomplishment, much joy, and even fun.

Chapter Eight, the first chapter of Part Two, “Becoming an Effective President,” discusses the future of the college presidency, explores the shifting nature of the presidential ranks, and goes into more depth about why declining numbers of chief academic officers want to become presidents and why increasing numbers of colleges and universities are turning to nontraditional candidates. This chapter also offers recommendations for preparing both traditional and nontraditional candidates for the presidency.

The final chapter, Chapter Nine, explains the search process and seeks to advise candidates on how to become competitive. It also makes the argument that the skills required for a successful candidacy are the same as those necessary for a successful presidency.

Ultimately, I wrote this book because I have witnessed again and again both the transforming effect that an excellent college education can have on students and the critical role that presidents can play in inspiring such excellence. At the same time, I am aware of the daunting responsibility that a college presidency brings with it. My hope, therefore, is that this book will help presidents, their boards, and their administrative and faculty colleagues understand what it means to be presidential and that that understanding will enhance presidential leadership and the quality of the educational experience of their students.


I am especially grateful to Scott Jashik, Inside Higher Ed editor and co-founder, who first encouraged me to write a series of essays on higher education, gave me an ongoing forum for them, and eventually proposed to me that I expand the essays into a book. Scott then suggested to David Brightman, executive editor, Higher and Adult Education at Jossey-Bass, that Jossey-Bass consider publishing the book. I owe David great thanks for his encouragement. I was elated the first time he referred to himself as my editor. I became even more elated as he advised me on ways to improve the book. Aneesa Davenport, assistant editor, was supportive and insightful throughout. Learning that marketing manager Kasi Miller was a Puget Sound graduate who had been a student when I was at Puget Sound was especially meaningful. Marketing assistant Hunter Stark was very helpful. My deepest thanks and highest praise go to Sandra Beris, my copyeditor, who taught me even more than William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White in their classic Elements of Style about making every word count. I also have appreciated the emails from and phone conversations with trustees, presidents, and aspiring presidents who contacted me after reading the IHE essays.

I owe thanks to many others, far more than I could name here, but let me begin with personal acknowledgments. Perhaps most importantly, I want to thank my daughter Alexandra (Sasha) Siegel for enriching my life beyond measure. She is always an inspiration to me. My grandsons, Sean and Ryan Siegel, at ages eight and six, thrill me with their love of reading, their fascination with words, and their exuberance for life. My son-in-law, Steven Siegel, simply makes me happy that he is such a loving husband, father, and yes, son-in-law. My late husband Kenneth Pierce was truly my partner during my Puget Sound years. A former corporate CEO, college professor, and trustee, he taught me a great deal and encouraged my sense of the absurd. My wonderful sisters, Linda Resneck Krohn and Brenda Resneck Laughery, our incredible father Elliott Resneck (who throughout our childhood sent us often to dictionaries), and our amazing late mother Dory Resneck with her unconditional love, have always encouraged and supported me. Laird Desmond gave me exemplary help reviewing an early draft of this manuscript, and Dick Turner (former president of Grinnell, which was only one of the many distinguished faculty and administrative positions he held) has over many years been an amazing mentor and an equally stunning friend. Each of these individuals has contributed abundantly to the texture of my life.

My colleagues, current and past, especially Tom Courtice, Rich Ekman, Jamie Ferrare, Bert Sonnenfeld, Tom Staley, Tobie Van der Vorm, and A. Walton Litz, have taught me much and been important friends.

I also want to thank the new presidents with whom I have been privileged to work, the wonderful board and search committee chairs who have taken seriously their responsibility to hire and then become a partner to their college's new presidents, and the Puget Sound community of faculty, staff, students, trustees, donors, parents, and alumni who were willing to go on a journey of change with me.

First among these is my exemplary board chair of ten years Bill Weyerhaeuser, who truly was both my colleague and friend in our effort to make a wonderful college an even better one. Terry Lengfelder, the Puget Sound board vice chair, gave me important guidance at critical moments. Other members of the board, too numerous to name, exemplified what good trustees do.

I am grateful to Karen Goldstein, vice president for finance and administration during my final three years at Puget Sound and my colleague at SRP CONSULTING and Academic Search, for her unwavering friendship, her keen editorial eye, and the pleasure she has brought me by sharing my consulting life. Karen and her Puget Sound vice presidential colleagues, Terry Cooney, Kris Bartanen, and George Mills, demonstrated what talented people, working as a team, could accomplish. Beth Herman, Puget Sound's director of development for nine of the years of my presidency, was a fine fundraising coach.

The following Puget Sound faculty and staff members, among many others, inspired my discussion of presidential collaboration with their colleagues: Bob Albertson, Suzanne Barnett, Kim Bobby, Ava Brock, Ed Cole, Jenell Coughlin, Doug Edwards, Rosa Beth Gibson, Mott Greene, Leon Grunberg, Chong Heyder, Suzanne Holland, Arlene Holt, Chris Ives, Rufus Kennedy, Linda King, Chuck Luce, Paul Loeb, John McGee, Lorraine McNair (whom the students called “Mama Lola''), Maggie Mittuch, Gertrude Moore, Ily Nagy, Faye Nichols, Bev Pierson, Michel Rocchi, Stuart Smithers, Elaine Stefanowicz, Alan Thorndike, Mike Veseth, Keith Ward, Melissa Weinman-Jagosh, Anne Wood, and Lisa Wood.

A host of former and current presidents also were very helpful to me both as I was writing the book and throughout my career, but I am especially grateful to Bruce Alton Leon Botstein, Francesco Cesareo, Constantin (Deno) Curris, Stan Hales, Rock Jones, Jessica Koslow, Marie McDermott, Pat McPherson, Jo Ellen Parker, Bob Parilla, John Pickelman, Steve Poskanzer, Carolynn-Reid Wallace, Kathleen Ross, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, and Jim Votruba.

Most of all, I want to thank my students, from the time I began teaching as a teaching assistant, next at a community college, and then at wonderful institutions ranging from Ithaca College to Princeton. They have been and continue to be the reason why I do what I do.

About the Author

Susan Resneck Pierce is president emerita of the University of Puget Sound, where she served as president from 1992 to 2003. Under her leadership, Puget Sound entered the ranks of the national liberal arts colleges. As the result of a successful comprehensive campaign and careful use of institutional resources, the endowment grew from $68 million to $213 million; the college completed $85 million of new construction and major renovations; SAT scores increased from 1067 to 1253; and applications for 650 freshman places grew to 4,400 annually. To honor her work at Puget Sound, donors endowed both a chair in humanities and honors and a lecture series in public affairs and the arts in her name. In addition, thanks also to a major donor, the atrium of Puget Sound's new humanities building now carries her name.

From 1990 to 1992 Pierce served as vice president for academic affairs at Lewis & Clark College, and from 1984 to 1990 as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tulsa. As assistant director of the Division of Education Programs at the National Endowment for the Humanities from 1982 to 1984, she directed the three federal programs that supported undergraduate education in the humanities. She also has served as chair of the English Department at Ithaca College and as visiting associate professor at Princeton University. In 2004–05, Susan Pierce served as president of the Boca Raton Community Hospital Foundation and vice president for the hospital.

The author of The Moral of the Story (Columbia University's Teachers College Press, 1982) and co-editor of Approaches to Teaching Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (Modern Language Association of America, 1989), Pierce has written and spoken extensively about American literature and educational issues. She has served on the boards of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and the American Conference of Academic Deans, on the advisory committee for the AAC&U project on engineering and the liberal arts, on the Council of Presidents of the Association of Governing Boards, and on the Washington Women in Leadership Advisory Committee. She has been active in many civic, cultural, and professional organizations, including the boards of the Seattle Symphony, Hillcrest Medical Center in Tulsa, the Tulsa Chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, and the Tulsa Opera. She cofounded the Access to College program in collaboration with Rudy Crew, then-superintendent of the Tacoma Public Schools. From 1998 to 2002, she served on the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Task Force on College Drinking and on the executive committee of the Annapolis Group. She is currently a member of the board for the Centre for the Arts at Mizner Park in Boca Raton and serves both on the steering committee for the Festival of the Arts Boca and as chair of its literature program. She is the recipient of several teaching awards and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) District VIII Distinguished Leadership Award for 2003. Susan Pierce is a member of Phi Beta Kappa.

Pierce received her A.B. degree from Wellesley College, her M.A. degree from the University of Chicago, and her Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, all in English. She now lives in Boca Raton, Florida, where she is writing and consulting. As president of SRP CONSULTING, she advises colleges and universities on planning, effective board and presidential performance, board development, governance, and fundraising. She has also facilitated presidential and senior administrative searches for colleges and universities.

Part I

Being an Effective President