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Presidential Vocation and Institutional Mission

Why This Program?

UPDATE: CIC has decided to reset the Vocation and Mission program calendar by a full year. The opening summer seminar will now be held in the summer of 2021 and the winter seminar will be held in February of 2022. CIC anticipates that nominations for the 2022–2023 program year will be sought beginning in fall 2021.

How one does the work of a college president is an essential question. Why one takes up the presidency as a calling in life is even more important and should be asked and answered first.

This is the premise of the yearlong seminar-based Presidential Vocation and Institutional Mission program offered by the Council of Independent Colleges. In this program, a small cohort of college and university senior administrators and their spouses or partners join together to read and think deeply about meaning and purpose in life as those values are applied to the presidency in independent higher education. At the same time, participants read and think about what makes the mission of one college or university different from that of another.


Why at this point in your life? Where should you serve? Why might differences in mission matter to you as you look for an alignment of person and institution? Why might your sense of calling be attractive to some colleges and not others? Why should any of this matter to the spouse or partner of someone seeking a presidency?


CIC strongly believes and experience confirms that presidential leadership and institutional success are strengthened by the congruence of institutional mission and presidential vocation. All too often, presidencies are cut short by a misalignment between vocation and mission. This program aims to help those likely to be future presidents achieve great things for their institutions and avoid being “the right person in the wrong place.” Although occasionally participants determine that their calling is not to a presidency, a remarkable 35 percent of past participants have become college presidents. CIC’s Presidential Vocation and Institutional Mission program provides the opportunity for the inquiry, reflection, and discernment necessary to build a solid foundation for a first presidency—an essential step to enjoy career fulfillment, personal and family wellness, and institutional success.

As a result of the program, I began my successful search for a presidency with clarity about the need to find alignment between an institution’s mission and my own sense of vocation. I believe my candidacy for positions was strengthened by this knowledge. The program facilitators offered invaluable counsel throughout the seminar, and my seminar colleagues encouraged me during the search process.”
—Barbara Farley, President of Illinois College and former chief academic officer, Augsburg University


Participants in the Presidential Vocation and Institutional Mission program should currently hold a senior leadership position at a CIC member institution.

In many cases they have the rank of vice president or provost. Successful “prospective presidents” have come from all major functional areas of college leadership, including academic affairs, finance and administration, student life, enrollment and student success, and advancement. Deans who report to the president also will be strong candidates. Although there are exceptions, successful nominees are usually in at least the third year of service in their current role. Persons whose responsibilities would typically be regarded as two or more steps from a presidency are less likely to be selected.

Participants need not be actively engaged in the presidential search process to participate. This program has space for those who feel confident that the presidency is in their future and for those who are unsure.

Spouses and partners are strongly encouraged to engage fully in this exploration. Even though a presidential spouse may serve in a variety of capacities within the institution and outside it, including maintaining a separate professional career, the presidency has profound implications for marital and family life. Each cohort includes approximately 20 prospective presidents, and most participate with a spouse or partner.


This program will give you a language for talking about your values and passions. If you are in a marriage or partnership, it will provide the two of you with an informed opportunity to explore together what serving in a presidency might mean. It will offer you a window into thinking about what might make an institution distinctive. It will provide you with new allies in the journey of discernment—both the CIC facilitators working closely with you and your fellow seminar participants. In short, it will strengthen your ability to secure and sustain a presidency.

Since 2005, approximately one-third of participants in the Presidential Vocation and Institutional Mission program have gone on to serve as college and university presidents. It is typical of participants that they choose the searches they enter based on their discernment of where there is a likelihood of sufficient alignment between their talents and commitments and an institution’s characteristics. CIC believes that this kind of thoughtful matching is a common feature of longer, more satisfying, and more successful presidencies.

About the 2021-2022 Program

Through seminars, discussions, consultations, and extensive reading, a team of facilitators—experienced presidents and their spouses—guide participants in this inquiry over the course of one year.

Program participants gather twice for group seminars. The first seminar takes place over four days in the summer, and the second lasts for a day and a half in the winter. Participants read assigned materials in advance of each seminar. Each participating individual or couple also has at least three telephone consultations with members of the facilitator team spaced out over the program year.

Many practical aspects of the presidential search process deliberately are not part of this program. We do not practice interviewing or meet with search consultants. Other programs do those things well. What we intentionally do is read, reflect, discuss, discern, and talk about the applications of these activities to each participant’s life and career. The purpose is to help participants gain a better understanding of how to discern both an institution’s mission and their own calling.

This program was tremendously helpful in my career discernment. For Alan and me, it was a unique opportunity to evaluate our next steps within the context of calling and purpose and to consider what service would mean to us in the future. We benefited from the guidance of experienced facilitators and met peer colleagues who became friends. Their ongoing support continues to undergird our work, and we are extremely grateful for what the program provided to us.”
—Debbie Cottrell, President and former Vice President for Academic Affairs, Texas Lutheran University

Sample Seminar Topics

The seminar topics and readings vary each year. These past examples illustrate the program’s distinctive approach to the process of considering a college presidency.
Early in the Summer Seminar, participants break into four groups and discuss texts such as:

  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (book excerpt)
  • David Brooks, “The Summoned Self” (New York Times article)

The discussion focuses on understanding vocation and participants consider questions such as: What are significant challenges to vocation as a framework for life?

Toward the end of the summer gathering, participants meet to discuss the public nature of a college presidency—informed by these texts:

  • Abraham Lincoln, “Second Inaugural Address” (speech)
  • Martin Luther King, Jr., “Where Do We Go from Here?” (speech excerpts)
  • Hugh Heclo, “George Washington’s Mind” (excerpt from On Thinking Institutionally)

The discussion focuses on how to inspire and how to lead with vocation.

Other authors include Abigail and John Adams, Aristotle, Wendell Berry, Jill Ker Conway, Louise Erdrich, Homer, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Eboo Patel, and Amy Tan. The readings are deliberately eclectic—including the ancient and modern, the contemporary and classic, spiritual and secular—and are analytical, reflective, and creative.

Program Facilitators

Program Director

Frederik Ohles, president emeritus of Nebraska Wesleyan University (2007–2019)

Program Facilitators

These individuals served as facilitators for the 2019–2020 program. CIC will announce the facilitators for the 2021–2022 program in spring 2021.

Jane Easter Bahls, presidential spouse, Augustana College (IL) (since 2003)
Steven C. Bahls, president, Augustana College (IL) (since 2003)
Donna M. Carroll, president, Dominican University (IL) (since 1994)
Christopher L. Holoman, president, Centenary College of Louisiana (since 2016)
Constance Currier Holoman, presidential spouse, Centenary College of Louisiana (since 2016)
Rosemary Ohles, former presidential spouse, Nebraska Wesleyan University (2007–2019)

 ‭(Hidden)‬ Current Status 1

​​Twenty participants from independent colleges and universities were selected for the program, which is intended for senior administrators—and their spouses and partners—who are considering whether to seek a presidency.

The Summer Seminar was held at the Woodstock Inn & Resort on July 14–17, 2019, in Woodstock, Vermont. The Winter Seminar will be held February 24–25, 2020, at the Emory Conference Center in Atlanta, GA.

PDFDownload the 2019–2020 brochure.

 ‭(Hidden)‬ Current Status 2

​Up to 20 participants from independent colleges and universities will be selected for the program, which is intended for senior administrators—and their spouses and partners—who are considering whether to seek a presidency.

Selection of participants will be announced by Monday, March 13, 2017.

 ‭(Hidden)‬ Nomination Information

Senior administrators of CIC member institutions in all cabinet level roles, typically with three years or more experience in their present position, are eligible to be nominated for the Presidential Vocation and Institutional Mission program. Selection for participation in the program is available by a nomination from your current president only.

Nominations received by February 7, 2020, will be given priority consideration. Selected participants will be notified by March 16, 2020.

To submit a nomination online, please refer to the brochure and nomination form:

The following criteria will be used to select participants:
  • Evidence that the nominee has had significant relevant experience and has demonstrated the potential to serve with success as a college president in the next step of his or her career;

  • Evidence that the nominee has reflected on his or her own sense of vocation, has contemplated the relevance of institutional mission for the presidency, and is prepared to engage in frank and open discussion of these matters with other program participants;

  • Evidence that the nominee takes a broad view of the issues involved in fulfilling the expectations of a college or university presidency; and

  • The nominee’s likely contribution to the diversity of perspectives and experiences in the program.
I loved the variety of readings and the diversity of participants. Each of us brought different skills, experiences, talents, and perspectives, which made the seminar discussions engaging and valuable. It highlighted the variety and value of the independent college network.”
—Harry Dumay, President of Elms College and former Vice President for Finance, Saint Anselm College

Locations and Costs

UPDATE: CIC has decided to reset the Vocation and Mission program calendar by a full year. The opening summer seminar will now be held in the summer of 2021 and the winter seminar will be held in February of 2022.

Thanks to a generous grant from Lilly Endowment Inc., most expenses, including travel stipends for both the Summer and Winter Seminars as well as lodging, meals, consultations, and materials during the program, will be covered by CIC for participants and their spouses or partners. There is a one-time registration fee of $400 for the prospective president and $250 for an accompanying spouse or partner due upon acceptance into the program.

Contact Information

Fred Ohles, CIC senior advisor and president emeritus of Nebraska Wesleyan University, is leading this project. Nominators and prospective participants can direct questions about the program to Harold V. Hartley III, CIC senior vice president, by phone at (202) 466-7230 or email at hhartley@cic.nche.edu, or to Fred Ohles, by email at fohles@cic.nche.edu.