Presidential Transitions

By Trachtenberg, Stephen Joel | Planning for Higher Education, April-June 2009 | Go to article overview

Presidential Transitions


Trachtenberg, Stephen Joel, Planning for Higher Education


Presidential Transitions by Patrick H. Sanaghan, Larry Goldstein, and Kathleen D. Gaval Praeger 2008 207 pages ISBN: 978-0-275-99408-2

Reviewed by Stephen Joel Trachte ? berg

Anyone who reads Presidential Transitions, and this review should encourage you to do so, will notice immediately that I wrote the forward. The reader may wonder if I am double-dipping by writing a review, an idea that occurred to me and that I shared with the good people at the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP). They understood, but said, first, that they thought I could be even-handed and, second, that as a beloved ex-president and trusted advisor, I would now be able to bring a fresh perspective to the job. I agreed and I hope the reader will, too.

Patrick H. Sanaghan, Larry Goldstein, and Kathleen D. Gaval have written a book about process - about the one-time-only, make-or-break process of becoming a university president, and the subtitle of their book is also a warning to that end: It's Not Just The Position, It's The Transition. They are right. Getting all the elements of a transition under control is daunting business, requiring caution, a keen eye for "pitfalls and potholes," as they say, and the ability to simultaneously look at details and see broadly, to have both an intellectual and personal sense of the new institution (or the new assignment at the old institution), and to acquire - by homework and osmosis - the academic, social, financial, historical, and cultural facts and feel of the university in equal measure.

Presidential Transitions stresses the importance of having someone for the incoming president to talk tosomeone who knows him or her, who is a friend, but who is also a realist. Whether the transition is inbound or outgoing - and I have looked at both sides now - nothing is more valuable. Making sense of any novel challenge is always difficult. Dealing with doubt or delusion can be equally debilitating and derailing. Whether we call it a reality check or a heart-to-heart makes no difference: some private and intimate conversation can clear the eyesight and the insight wonderfully well.

But I hasten to add that there is nothing touchy-feely about Presidential Transition s. The authors' approach is workmanlike, relying on step-by-step procedures - all of which are handily summarized in an appendix - to organize the wheels and gears of the transition for the new president, the board of trustees, the senior staff, and the faculty. They cover everything from the search for a new president to the transition of the outgoing president in patient detail. Thus, it is not surprising that the number of steps the authors outline is overwhelming, but they are not naive and state at the beginning that new presidents, and others, should pick those particular reviews, audits, and tactics that fit them - and the institution, for its part, should do the same. If some of the steps they outline for new presidents seem obvious - e.g., talk to people, consult your mentor, hold off on laying out your "vision" - it seems to me that leaving out the obvious could marginalize the utilitarian or even incline some to overlook important components of a complex process. Better to be thorough, and the authors are.

Their thoroughness extends to providing primary sources for their research on transitions in the form of transcribed interviews with presidents, past presidents, and others. What their subjects have to say is personal and specific to a time and place and may not apply in all cases, naturally, but it is helpful to read how these individuals faced different problems or novelties and easy enough to see analogies in one's own experience. The inclusion of these interviews, all of which are apposite to the authors' narrative, enriches their research and adds a level of validation.

It is also, and unfortunately, possible to be too thorough, which leads to one of the few criticisms I have of the book. …

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