01/15/2014 02:04 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2014

Choose the Presidency and the President for the Right Reason

Most people who aspire to be a college or university president would never admit it. I did.

I am still the only person I know who publicly stated he wanted to be a college president. Perhaps that desire is thought to be gauche in the academy; perhaps it is because most presidents still work their way through the academic ranks and secure positions some really do not understand.

Quite frankly, when I became a college president, I thought I was one of the first of what would be a new breed of president. In my mind, the time had come for presidents whose range of experiences outside of academia would serve the president well. I was wrong -- not about the import of those experiences, but about the fact a new breed of president would come of age at the end of the twentieth century. To be sure, we have had more businessmen and lawyers than before -- just not as many as I anticipated (and even many of those came from business and law school faculty).

Presidential search committees are usually dominated -- in philosophy, if not in numbers -- by faculty. Since most faculty members want "one of their own" at the helm of their institution, nontraditional candidates all too rarely attain the position. Unfortunately and paradoxically, faculty do not seem to understand that, once they get their wish and have a (former) member of the faculty installed as president, they will no longer think of the faculty member-turned-administrator as being one of their own.

I believe, especially in this day and age, that being a former member of the faculty should not be a sine qua non for a presidency. Any legitimate candidate for a presidency clearly needs to understand academia; however, the candidate has to understand the presidency, too.

During my years on the job, I was surprised by the number of colleagues who, having risen through the academic ranks, seemed to have little understanding of the position they held. I soon came to understand why. They had been wonderful in the classroom and in dealing with fellow members of the professoriate; they had been excellent deans or vice presidents; they had seen the "perks" that went with the presidency; and they had decided the next logical step career-wise for them was the presidency.

Logical? Yes. Wrong? Yes -- for many, if not most, of them. The modern-day college presidency requires people who, with the proper staff, can deal -- and who want to deal -- with the complex array of issues most campuses face. Yet many presidents do not seem to want to tackle or focus on some of their major responsibilities.

Spending roughly 50 percent of one's time worrying about finances (budgets and fund-raising) is not what most presidents who have come from the faculty ranks seek to do. By the way, the "50 percent" figure is from the era preceding the market meltdown. Today, the percentage is much higher -- and it will be for the foreseeable future.

The benefits that come with the presidency should not encourage you to do something you are neither good at nor want to do. I was lucky. Not only did I set out to be a president, but I found fundraising to be a joy, not a burden. A stint as a development vice president taught me I liked asking for money.

Parenthetically, choose your predecessor carefully. No, I am not being facetious. If you follow a successful president, you will have a more difficult job than would be the case if your predecessor's run was undistinguished. Ideally, too, you are better off if your personality and your approach to the job are very different from the person you follow. Even if neither of these conditions exists, you can still (and you undoubtedly will) take the job if offered; however, you should do so with the recognition that your challenge will be greater.

So, before a presidency is taken or offered, due diligence on the part of both you and the board is essential. Otherwise, neither will be happy. You may both get what you wish for, and then wish you had not.