On Hiring a President

Inside the search committee

January/February 2016

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On Hiring a President

Photo: Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

Isaac Stein has traveled this road before. Chair of the 19-member search committee charged with finding Stanford’s 11th president, Stein, MBA ’70, JD ’72, was on the panel that recommended John Hennessy back in 2000. The process this time will be very similar, he says, beginning with a thorough discussion about the challenges and opportunities facing Stanford in the next decade, and the attributes necessary for a new president to succeed. The committee solicited input broadly, meeting with administrative leaders on campus, as well as with faculty and students, and also reaching out to alumni—a survey conducted last fall harvested thousands of responses. 

As the committee begins to identify and evaluate candidates, Stein shared his thoughts on the search process. 

What are you looking for in a candidate?

First, the person has to be a distinguished academic. They don’t have to have a Nobel Prize—although we would accept one—but this person has to be seen as a serious academic who is credible with a highly research-intensive faculty. He or she also needs the managerial abilities to lead an enterprise that is extremely complex. That does not mean that they have to have done something exactly like this before, because we are also assessing an ability to grow in the job. Having worked closely with the last three presidents, I can testify that they were very different five years into their job than they were the day they started.  

There are lots of personal characteristics that are important, and those run the gamut from integrity and the ability to engender trust to communication skills. We’re looking for someone who has the ability to build on the excellence of Stanford within the remarkable culture that exists here. 

Where do you find them?

Our committee members have been traveling the country, meeting with leaders of peer institutions and other experts in higher education. Although some of them could very well be prospective candidates, we approach everybody initially as a thought leader in higher education. 

Being president of Stanford is not a job for a gifted amateur. While Gen. Eisenhower could come home from the war to run Columbia University in 1947, the world of research universities has changed over the years. I’m reasonably confident that he would be hard-pressed to run Stanford University in 2016. We do, however, look at candidates with the requisite skills who are today in different roles, so we don’t limit ourselves to the academic world. There are people, for example, who have gone into foundations or into industry or into government but have a distinguished academic background and strong administrative skills. We will absolutely be looking at such people.

How are you addressing diversity within the candidate pool and in the process?

We are making an extra effort to look at people in diversity categories. We started by having a diverse committee so we have voices at the table as we both build a pool and as we discuss candidates. To make sure that we have a pool that includes enough diversity sometimes means going a little deeper in our understanding of the organizational complexity of other schools. For example, some of our peers have a dean of the college—we don’t have that, so we needed to understand what that person does. It would be wonderful to have a woman as the next president, a person of color, or both, but what we are most determined to do is to get the best possible president for Stanford.

How do you make your final choice?

We winnow down the pool to a small group of finalists. We do extensive due diligence and have very intensive interviews with those finalists—we throw questions at them on every conceivable subject for hours. This is difficult for most people to handle, but it’s not a bad proxy for what the president actually does when he or she stands up in front of the Faculty Senate to take questions and has no idea what people are going to ask about. 

When the interviews are done, we go into a small room with a chimney and lock ourselves in until we can agree on a single candidate. When the white smoke comes out of the chimney, we have a candidate to propose to the Board of Trustees and, we hope, a new president. 

And when will that happen?

We do not have a timeline beyond saying that it would be very lonely at Commencement this year if we did not have a new president up there on the podium. So we expect that we will have it done by then but we will take whatever time it takes.

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