Dispatch from Kevin J. Conway ’80

Kevin Conway

February 2, 2011

As part of an ongoing effort to communicate regarding the search for Amherst’s nineteenth President, Jide Zeitlin asked me to comment on the stages in the progress of the search. In particular, Jide asked that I focus specifically on the process of conducting this search. Many people might prefer to provide their views on what personal qualities they would like to see in our next leader, or perhaps how to define the key priorities facing Amherst and thus its next President. However, process does matter. The legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden is famous not only for his extraordinary success, and his character and traditional values, but also for his many aphorisms. One of my favorites is “failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”

My summary observations here are the first installment of what is intended to be a series, rotating among various members of the search committee. Our hope is that these reflections will provide significant transparency about our efforts and progress, and also give the Amherst community a better sense of our collective thinking and individual perspectives. 

First, however, I must say that I am honored to be given the privilege of assisting with the search for the next President of Amherst. It is a job of critical importance for an institution about which I have deep feelings, and I feel truly fortunate to be asked to help.

Although I have been involved in many searches for leadership positions for corporate, charitable, and not-for-profit institutions, imageas well as recruiting CEO’s and senior executives to join the private equity firm where I serve as Managing Partner, the search for a President of Amherst is unique. Every search involves considerable preparation, advance thought, diligent follow up and judgment to reach a successful conclusion. The Amherst Presidential Search, however, is a special search, and not just because of how important the outcome is to Amherst and to all of us. The search for Amherst’s next President is unique both due to the range of requirements the position entails and due to the critical juncture where Amherst now stands. The College is in very good shape, and is a leader in higher education in so many ways. At the same time, Amherst, like liberal arts education as a whole, is at an inflection point and stands at what is likely to prove to be a key point in its history. Amherst and its nineteenth President have the opportunity to build on the College’s leadership position, to further improve and expand the many positive achievements of Amherst. At the same time, the College also faces many complicated issues and choices. Our next President will need to bring a rare blend of talents to the position, and identifying this individual is a somewhat daunting task. Fortunately, this is a very attractive position for potential candidates and the search committee brings together individuals with a broad set of skills, experiences and perspectives that should serve the College well in what promises to be a very rigorous and dynamic process.

We have divided the search process into three phases: Definition, Discovery, and Selection. As part of the definition phase, the committee sought the advice and counsel of the constituencies that make up Amherst College. We have heard a range of views—always insightful and interesting, frequently provocative and occasionally divergent. I have been impressed with the thoughtfulness and passion with which these opinions are expressed. Understandably, many of these suggestions were presented as conclusions and “answers,” with less explanation of the underlying rationale and assumptions. In my view, one of the key tasks with which our committee has been charged is to define the critical reasoning that supports the characteristics we hope to find in our candidates, with a direct link to the key future issues for the College, to be followed by the hard work to identify the right individual who best embodies those characteristics. In a sense, the search committee is tasked to convert the collective “wish list” of a diverse set of constituents into a flesh-and-blood reality. At this point, we have completed the initial phase of listening, although we will be “listening” to representatives of each of our constituencies right up to the final recommendation and selection. 

The definition of the key attributes that the ideal candidate will possess, and thus the search itself, should be informed by a vision for Amherst in the next decade. This vision for Amherst must take into account a view of what Amherst’s strengths and weaknesses are today, as well as a comprehensive assessment of the challenges and opportunities that Amherst, and liberal arts education overall, will face beyond the next decade.  In many ways, the eloquent expression of Amherst’s Mission Statement says it all; yet a mission statement—any mission statement—must be a dynamic and pragmatic statement of purpose. A mission statement can’t provide the road map to successful execution of each step that enables achievement of our goals, much less stipulate what road to take when choices arise. (To get a sense of this, I encourage you to read the words of the Mission Statement—and think in a very practical sense about how you would proceed to fulfill its mandate.) Further, the President and Board of Trustees must navigate in a more complicated and increasingly volatile environment. The search committee’s purpose is to identify what talents, experience and character traits will qualify an individual to help Amherst realize its mission in a future filled with both opportunity and challenges, and to translate these ideals to the selection of the best available candidate.

A key element of the first phase of the search process is the definition document, which is meant to describe the College and frame the position and the opportunity for candidates. The definition document not only will convey much of what is so special and attractive about Amherst, but also will inherently capture the specific attributes, skills, and experiences we hope our next President would embody (think “able to leap tall buildings in a single bound” and “faster than a speeding bullet”). A talented and diverse subset of the search committee, led by Cullen Murphy, initiated the work of describing the opportunity, and the challenges, in this important document. The process of drafting this definition document was helpful in itself, as the committee worked to incorporate all of the input we received in the “listening phase.” This drafting process also served as a powerful demonstration for me of the considerable talent and experience, and unique perspectives, sitting around the search committee table. The definition document necessarily will be a critical component to engaging effectively with candidates. It also will assist both in capturing the interest of the most talented candidates and as a template in the selection of the short list of finalists. 

The search committee is filled with dedicated people with long and deep ties to Amherst. We will, however, also try very hard to think about Amherst as it may be viewed by others who have not had the benefit of a long association with the College. A view of Amherst “from the outside” is important not only to understand the perspective of potential candidates, but also to help frame our vision for Amherst in the future.

The early phases of any search process, and this search in particular, are filled with aspirational descriptions of the many attributes an ideal candidate should possess. Similarly, we have and will continue to discuss the many issues, opportunities, and challenges that Amherst’s nineteenth President will face. These conversations have had the luxury—for the moment—of not worrying about the reality of whether any one individual could possibly satisfy all of the relevant criteria we might imagine, or even how to prioritize and resolve the inherent conflicts within each of the varied issues we expect a new President to become engaged with. We are now entering a point in the process where reality meets the conceptual, where our aspirations must be squared with a pragmatic set of choices and priorities. As we begin to consider actual candidates, the theoretical discussion will need to become more concrete—and we will necessarily move to a balancing and implicit ranking of “what really matters.” In my experience, this is not only natural but a very healthy and productive process. It is also a process which we hope will produce the best choice and the best fit for Amherst. Another essential undertaking that will further refine our balancing of the criteria will be our referencing and diligence on the top candidates. At the right time, we will reach out to a series of individuals who know the candidates best and engage with them in a confidential and candid conversation. This requires persistence, skill and judgment, as well as an ear for subtlety. In many cases these confidential conversations can be very revealing and can help illuminate what on the surface appear to be difficult choices.

One final thought—there are real limits to the effectiveness of even the most well thought out design for a search process.  For all of the best planning and preparation, a successful search will always come down to people and to a very subjective assessment of capabilities, potential and “fit.” I am sure Tony Marx did not meet each of the very comprehensive criteria in the search document of nine years ago, just as there was a large dose of the human element and chance in each of our prior Presidential Search efforts. Further, even Tony would admit that he is a very different President today than when he first assumed the position. We all recognize that a search must be an iterative, rigorous and yet very opportunistic process. With that in mind, the members of the search committee are committed to conducting as diligent and well planned an effort as possible, yet with minds open to the flexibility and uncertainty implicit in the process.

As Pasteur observed, “Fortune favors the prepared mind.”

As we move into the discovery and selection phases of the search, we look forward to further communication and engagement with the Amherst community.

Kevin J. Conway ’80