By Barbara Bent
The next president of Washington and Lee University might be revealed by the board of trustees this month.
He or she will succeed Kenneth Ruscio, who is stepping down this summer after 10 years as president. The board’s regular winter meeting is Feb. 11-13.
James Farrar, secretary of the university and a member of the search committee, stressed the importance of confidentiality in the search for his successor. Most candidates currently hold high profile jobs at top-tier universities across the country. A breach of their identities could jeopardize their reputations in their current positions.
“It’s not a matter of secrecy; it’s not a matter of our wanting to keep things from people,” said Farrar. “It really has to do with the individuals who put themselves forward in a process like this.”
But not every detail has been kept under wraps.
Last summer, hopeful candidates read a 17-page prospectus that thoroughly outlined the position’s responsibilities and W&L as an institution. At the same time, the rector of the board of trustees appointed 15-person search committee. That committee will recommend a candidate to the board, which will make the final decision.
Interim Provost and English Professor Marc Conner is not on that committee, but he was on the search committee that found current President Ruscio in 2006. He recognized how members of the search committee must include people who think in a representative way.
“If you look at the people who are on that presidential search committee: the faculty, the staff, the student rep, the administrators, the trustees. It’s people who think beyond themselves, and that’s the most important thing,” Conner said.
The search committee is working with Storbeck/Pimentel and Associates, a consulting firm specializing in higher education executive searches. The Pennsylvania and California-based firm, which also managed presidential searches for Bates College, Middlebury College, and Rice University, boasts innovative organizational technology that has reduced busy work for W&L staff.
This advanced technology keeps the search organized, but it does not make the committee’s task any lighter.
“The due diligence that committee members put into a search like this is absolutely the same. It’s a very, very labor-intensive process,” said Farrar.
The interview process is rigorous, with most meetings taking place in major airports to ensure secrecy and convenience for traveling candidates. However, some candidates visited W&L on their own.
“Part of a search like this is not only identifying the best candidate and searching out the best candidate. It’s keeping them in the game,” said Farrar. “It’s making sure that they know that we are interested in them.”
Though the search is going smoothly now, he said, some candidates could suddenly drop out. Farrar referenced the familiar Yogi Berra adage, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over,” to make the point that it is difficult to set anything in stone until someone signs a contract and makes the commitment.
The new president will have large shoes to fill. President Ruscio is finishing up a successful 10-year term. He led the institution in the “Honor Our Past, Build Our Future” capital campaign that raised $542.5 million in seven years (eight percent more than the $500 million goal). Some campaign accomplishments include renovations to the Colonnade, construction of the Hillel House, and $156 million put aside for financial aid. The president’s base compensation is $410,094, according to the university’s 2014 Form 990.
Conner emphasized the importance of two-way communication for a president—he or she should be able to listen as well as speak, and bring the same leadership qualities that Ruscio brought to the job. But the most significant characteristic he hopes to see in the new president is a thorough knowledge of how a liberal arts school operates.
“Ken has been so good, that on the one hand, this is a really attractive job. Nothing here is broken. Quite the contrary, so that’s a plus,” said Conner. “It’s always tough to follow a strong performer, so I guess that will be a challenge for the incoming president.”
The search committee worked hard to reflect the consideration of students. Undergraduate and law students attended forums in the fall, led by consultants at Storbeck/Pimentel and members of the search committee. Lydia Barit ’16 hopes the president is directly involved with the entire student body. She suggested a weekly forum or something similar would promote more transparency between the president and his students.
Other students are ready for a bigger change; the university has never had a female president or a president of color.
“I challenge this university to install a president that looks nothing like his or her predecessors before them,” Ijezie Ikwuezunma, a senior, said at the MLK Legacy event in Lee Chapel on Jan. 17. “This university definitely needs reform, and if this university is going to live up to its motto, ‘Not unmindful of the future,’ we need to see change.”
Conner said the most difficult part of being on the committee is understanding how important the hire will be to the school and its legacy. Farrar assures that the committee has worked hard to pick the best possible candidate:
“President Ruscio has been a remarkable leader and he’s going to have a fantastic legacy over time. History will reveal that. We have confidence that we will have a worthy successor.”