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Transitioning Higher Education Leadership: Five Communication Lessons Learned

Leadership and Management

Transitioning Higher Education Leadership: Five Communication Lessons Learned

Presidential transitions are rarely easy. And yet, with effective communication strategies, the transition can actually strengthen a university’s culture and its relationships. How? Overcommunicating minimizes anxiety around “the unknown;” transparency stimulates trust and stronger relationships with key stakeholders; planning and systems simplify the complexities; and additional transition-storytelling opportunities engage curious audiences.

Whether it’s a private or a public university, stakeholder audiences—students, faculty, alumni, donors, community partners, and other academic institutions—want to listen, and they want to be included in the conversation. During a presidential transition, it’s even more important to create communication channels that engage and encourage exchanges from all sides. Smart and strategic communication relaxes anxiety around uncertainty and ensures a university’s internal and external audiences’ voices are heard for seamless, effective transition.

The presidential transition for Metropolitan State University of Denver (MSU Denver) has been educational, both literally and figuratively. Following is a short case study with five lessons learned, to be shared with all academic environments.

Our Story:

When Dr. Stephen Jordan, the longest-standing president of MSU Denver, announced his retirement in September 2016, especially meaningful because it followed the public university’s 50th anniversary year, he also announced that his last day would be in June 2017, giving stakeholders nine months to process, react, accept, and trust. He was an icon on campus and in the community, and his 12-year, trailblazing tenure helped MSU Denver achieve university status, launch its first master’s degree programs, double its diverse student population, purchase its first university-owned building and then build four more, and even navigate the financial downturn and deep internal budget cuts. It was important to celebrate Dr. Jordan’s successes while embracing change and searching for (and then transitioning to) a new president during that time frame.

We listened a lot. We communicated a lot.

The following lessons focus on communications during Dr. Jordan’s final nine months prior to the arrival of MSU Denver’s new president. More lessons will follow next year, when we have outcomes from the first year of Dr. Janine Davidson’s tenure.


Five Lessons Learned:

The presidential transition has had a positive impact on our reputation, vision, and relationships. From the initial retirement announcement to the research and presidential search, we learned a lot about ourselves as a university and about the transition process. Following are five key lessons that can port to other academic institutions, whether when transitioning a president or experiencing changes that require effective communication strategies.

1. Plan and prepare a lot! Plan the initial announcement, from timing to audiences and location, and then plan each subsequent internal and external update. Create a timeline with intentional touchpoints and opportunities for information sharing. Along the way, be sure to answer the questions that are top of mind:

  • What’s next?
  • What’s the plan for the board or hiring committee?
  • How will this affect key stakeholders?
  • Will the vision of the university change?
  • Will the new president bring new ideas?
  • Will the change be good or bad for the university and the community?

We had a transition plan for the nine-month time frame, as well as a rollout plan for launching the new president’s tenure with key dates, key outcomes, and key messages. We engaged our students, faculty, alumni, and the community in the development and implementation of these plans. When stakeholders know what to expect, they trust more and feel open to change.

2. Communicate, communicate, communicate with everyone. Communication is critical during a presidential transition, a time when stakeholders crave information and a sense of security that everything will be alright. Identify every possible communication channel to disseminate presidential updates through a mix of university websites, videos, email, newsletters, and live discussions, as well as through external media, social media, community partners, and education outlets. Different audiences receive information from myriad sources, so accessibility is important to accommodate the way they are informed. Once the communication channels are determined, develop updates in a format that best suits each particular outlet. Some communication channels used by MSU Denver include the following:

  • Large town hall meetings as well as intimate meetings and roundtables with key stakeholders
  • Social tweets, Facebook posts, live tweets
  • News releases, guest columns, and editorial board meeting with local media
  • Video package, developed by a videographer who followed Dr. Jordan through his day
  • War room for the PR, marketing, communications, creative and web teams to collaborate on all communications
  • A dedicated presidential search web page that housed all the information that had been disseminated

Transparency helps reach key audiences so they are not only informed but also feel part of the conversation. Engage them and update them. It’s the most efficient way to ensure a seamless transition.

3. Integrate teams and stakeholders.Work together withyour core teams, integrating their input and stimulating conversations from all different sides. MSU Denver’s transition and search committee represented the mixed audiences of the MSU Denver community and included students, faculty, donors, alumni, foundation members, board members, and community partners, all of whom were required to sign a confidentiality agreement. Their various perspectives, questions, and ideas ensured the transition process was inclusive, transparent, and helpful to all audiences.

4. Balance the old and new.A successful presidential transition must balance the needs and expectations of both presidents. Seek as many opportunities as possible to celebrate the outgoing president’s contributions through awards, campus ceremonies, and community events. We had the unique opportunity to name our Student Success Building after Dr. Jordan during his last month as a landmark with his name and “Success” in the same place. We also developed three tours and a survey to sequentially balance the old and the new:

  • A Farewell Tour for Dr. Jordan brought him to community leaders, education leaders, and campus stakeholders to complete 12 years of conversations.
  • An Introduction Tour for Dr. Jordan and incoming president Dr. Davidson provided a tandem conversation and helped bridge the visions of the leaders.
  • A Listening Tour for Dr. Davidson created opportunities for her to listen to feedback and ideas from key stakeholders while building new relationships.
  • A survey for faculty and staff during the June 2017 transition month asked participants, “If you could tell or ask Dr. Davidson anything about MSU Denver, what would it be?”

These communication tools connect and honor both sides, linking their vision for the university.

5. Deepen relationships.Trust is a powerful outcome of communication and transparency efforts, and it deepens relationships that matter during a presidential transition. Share your story, share your core values, and speak openly about your vision with your stakeholders. They will listen, trust, and feel more connected to the university. A presidential transition provides unexpected opportunities to speak more about your university brand, mission, and identity. More importantly, it also creates more touchpoints to share stories and your vision with your key stakeholders, reinforcing current relationships and even building news ones.

People don’t always like change. But they do like being heard, receiving information, and participating in a bigger conversation. Include them and engage them, and you will help them embrace change—and welcome a new university president.


As the chief of staff and associate to the president for marketing and communications for Metropolitan State University of Denver (MSU Denver), Cathy Lucas, APR, redefined MSU Denver’s brand in the higher education marketplace and spearheaded the communications for the recent presidential transition. She has earned a reputation for leading branding campaigns; planning strategic communications programs; inspiring leadership growth; successfully guiding through transition; cultivating communities, students, and higher education; and embracing change. 


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