2018–2019 CIC Leadership Cohorts Wrap Up Year with Closing Seminars

After a year of advanced professional development, the 2018–2019 cohorts of CIC’s Executive Leadership Academy (ELA) and Senior Leadership Academy (SLA) concluded their programs this summer (for participant lists, see the Spring 2018 Independent). Individuals chosen for the ELA are vice presidents or cabinet officers who aspire to be successful college or university presidents or to perform more effectively in their current positions. Those admitted to the SLA are mid-level campus administrators who have been identified by their institutions as having the potential for senior leadership positions in independent colleges or universities. Both programs include two national seminars, readings, webinars, structured mentorships, and considerable emphasis on individualized experiential activities.


The ninth annual cohort of ELA drew to a close with a seminar held in Washington, DC, June 17–19, 2019. ELA is sponsored jointly by CIC and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) and directed by Linda M. Bleicken, president of the American Academic Leadership Institute (AALI).

Group photo of participants standing on stairwell
Participants in the 2018–2019 Executive Leadership Academy concluded a yearlong program of seminars, readings, webinars, mentoring, and experiential activities in June.

Opening the seminar, George Ross, president emeritus of Central Michigan University, son of a sharecropper in Mississippi and the only one of 12 siblings to graduate from high school, recounted how he developed his leadership skills and style over his lifetime. Asked for a final piece of advice by one of the participants, Ross suggested that they “hold people accountable and recognize them when they do things well.”

Polly Peterson, president of the University of Jamestown (ND) and a graduate of the 2016–2017 ELA, and her spouse, Darin Peterson, offered a novel view of “how we ‘president’ by doing everything together.” Proclaiming that she loves what she does as a president, she lauded small colleges as the “heart and soul of higher education—where education is still happening and the maturation process takes place.” She praised her ELA experience largely because participants learn so much about themselves. “I finally knew I could do this job after going through the presidential search process. While there are sleepless nights, this position is the privilege of a lifetime.”

CIC President Richard Ekman discussed the relationship of leadership to personal as well as institutional values. Citing sociologist Burton R. Clark, he described the significance of the institutional saga and the role those in the seminar who become presidents will play in telling, embodying, and shaping the institution’s story. Every institution, he said, has a distinctive saga, philosophy of education, and mission. He urged participants to understand what is unique about each institution and consider how they would adapt to those characteristics before embarking on a presidential search. Ekman also suggested that, prior to considering a particular presidential search, participants look carefully at a variety of factors, including comparative data, financial information, and the probability of constructive change.

Shawn M. Hartman, vice president and chief operating officer of Academic Search, led an interactive session in which he engaged participants in questions about the role of search firms and what candidates should expect from them. Following group discussions, he explained how search firms manage, inform, and guide the search process and offered tips on how to work effectively with search firms as a client or as a candidate.

The seminar, which also featured sessions on crisis management, administrative challenges, and strategic planning, closed with practical advice from attorney Tyrone P. Thomas about what to expect in a presidential contract and from Academic Search President L. Jay Lemons on the importance of fit between a candidate and an institution. Among his words of advice Lemons said, “The search committee wants to make a connection with someone who demonstrates emotional intelligence and genuine commitment to the values and mission of the institution.”


Nominations for the 2020–2021 ELA cohort are due January 17, 2020. View information about the ELA and nomination process.


The closing seminar for the 2018–2019 SLA cohort took place in Washington, DC, June 20–22. CIC President Richard Ekman opened the seminar with a brief look at the history of ELA and SLA as a four-way partnership among Academic Search, AALI, AASCU, and CIC. Profits from Academic Search help support three leadership development programs (ELA, SLA, and AASCU’s Becoming a Provost Academy) that serve CIC and AASCU members. He then presented an overview of the current issues facing presidents and their cabinets, such as free public college, decreasing financial support, increasing individual and institutional diversity, opportunities for community college transfer to four-year institutions, pressure for colleges to prepare graduates for the workforce, and negative views of higher education in the media.

Paul James Ballard stands to ask question among seated participants
Paul James Ballard (center), associate dean of student success and retention at St. Norbert College (WI) asking a question during the 2018–2019 Senior Leadership Academy closing seminar.

Katie Conboy, provost and senior vice president of Simmons University (MA), discussed the kinds of questions participants should consider regarding the fit between an institution and their own interests. Among them were these questions: Can I support the institution’s heritage, culture, and ethos? Will I have access to the resources I will need to do my job well? Is there good chemistry among the people I would work with? Conboy cautioned that sometimes staying too long in a comfortable position can lead to personal and institutional stagnation and that change might provide both with opportunities to thrive and grow.

Another highlight of the seminar was a presentation by Robert J. Massa, retired vice present for enrollment at Dickinson College and Drew University (NJ), who began with the intriguing premise that “confronting current and future enrollment challenges in higher education requires disruption, creativity, and nerves of steel.” Massa cited demographic shifts, high perceived price and low willingness to pay, negative public opinion of higher education, and major change in the student decision process as major challenges to all institutions. Following an extensive analysis of each challenge, he suggested that small private institutions have to leverage their locations; explore experiential education; boost career development and integrate it with the curriculum; implement creative pricing strategies; and invest in smart, dedicated, and passionate staff and faculty in “all the right places.” Finally, he emphasized, “Colleges will be attracting, funding, and retaining students from a smaller base that is more diverse culturally, racially, and financially…and we must prepare for that now.”

Modeling what appeared to be an ideal working relationship between a president and member of her cabinet, Colette Pierce Burnett, president, and Wayne Knox, vice president and chief operating officer, have worked together at Huston-Tillotson University (TX) since 2015. They characterized their cabinet variously as a war room, central nervous system, strategic checkpoint, chief branding agency, and information conduit. While Knox is responsible for such core elements of the institution as student affairs, athletics, IT, and enrollment management, Burnett said that Knox’s most important function is “keeping her out of the weeds so she has more time to think strategically.”

Maya R. Kirkhope, senior consultant for Academic Search, provided advice for every step of the search process at the closing dinner ceremony. Among the top mistakes candidates make during an interview, she said, are using the same jokes and stories for multiple groups, saying anything that demonstrates they are ill prepared, and making promises they don’t know that they can keep. Once candidates are appointed, she advised, they should reach out to their direct reports, make an appointment to visit the campus, treat the person still in the position with utmost respect, and remain engaged with the search firm and their current institutions.

A presentation on accreditation and assessment by Patricia O’Brien, senior vice president of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges Commission on Institutions of Higher Education, explored the structures and purposes of each aspect of the voluntary process of accreditation. After walking the group through the components of accreditation, the value of accreditation to students and the institutions, and using the process to strengthen the institution, O’Brien advised participants to remember, “What gets measured gets better.”

Finally, Amanda Adolph Fore, senior communications advisor to the president of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, used small group exercises to explore communicating effectively in stressful times. She emphasized the importance of a sound communication strategy in which leaders determine their goals, identify the target audiences, develop their messages, deliver the messages using a variety of tools, and evaluate whether the methods are working.


Nominations for the 2020–2021 SLA cohort are due February 14, 2020. View more information about the SLA.