Presidential Vocation and Institutional Mission 2023–2024

February 25–27, 2024

The Presidential Vocation and Institutional Mission program is designed for senior leaders at CIC member schools to explore their potential calling to serve as a college or university president. The program is designed to help participants explore their vocational calling, as well as examine what types of institutional missions they might best serve.

Lilly Endowment Inc. logo

CIC is grateful to Lilly Endowment Inc. for its ongoing support of the Presidential Vocation and Institutional Mission program.

Why This Program?

How one does the work of a college president is an essential question. Why one takes up the presidency as a calling in life is even more important and should be asked and answered first.

This is the premise of the yearlong seminar-based Presidential Vocation and Institutional Mission program offered by the Council of Independent Colleges. In this program, a small cohort of college and university senior administrators and their spouses or partners join together to read and think deeply about meaning and purpose in life as those values are applied to the presidency in independent higher education. At the same time, participants read and think about what makes the mission of one college or university different from that of another.

Why Might You See Yourself in a Presidency?

Why at this point in your life? Where should you serve? Why might differences in mission matter to you as you look for an alignment of person and institution? Why might your sense of calling be attractive to some colleges and not others? With the rich diversity of colleges and universities, what type of institutional mission best aligns with the unique attributes you bring? Why should any of this matter to the spouse or partner of someone seeking a presidency? How might a prospective president’s calling and the spouse or partner’s calling align?

But Also, Why This Approach?

CIC strongly believes—and experience confirms—that presidential leadership and institutional success are strengthened by the congruence of institutional mission and presidential vocation. All too often, presidencies are cut short by a misalignment between vocation and mission. This program aims to help those likely to be future presidents achieve great things for their institutions and avoid being “the right person in the wrong place.” Although some participants determine that their calling is not to a presidency, a remarkable 35 percent of past participants in this program have become college presidents. Others have advanced in meaningful ways at their own college or university or another one. CIC’s Presidential Vocation and Institutional Mission program provides the opportunity for the inquiry, reflection, and discernment necessary to build a solid foundation for a first presidency—an essential step to enjoy career fulfillment, personal and family wellness, and institutional success. When the fit is good, everyone benefits.

“So many aspects of the program, such as the readings, reflective conversations with other participants, and the coaching from former presidents, were helpful to me in clarifying the importance of my personal mission and beliefs and their alignment with an institution’s mission, vision, and values. Simply stated, I would not have wanted to consider the path toward a presidency without this experience.”

Tracy Espy, President, Mitchell College and former Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, Pfeiffer University

Who Should Participate?

Participants in the Presidential Vocation and Institutional Mission program should currently hold a senior leadership position at a CIC member institution.

In many cases they have the rank of vice president or provost. Successful “prospective presidents” have come from all major functional areas of college leadership, including academic affairs, finance and administration, student life, enrollment and student success, and advancement. Deans who report to the president also will be strong candidates. Although there are exceptions, successful nominees are usually in at least the third year of service in their current role. Persons whose responsibilities would typically be regarded as two or more steps from a presidency are less likely to be selected. Individuals who would contribute to the diversity of perspectives and experiences in the program are especially encouraged to consider participating.

It is not required that someone be actively engaged in the presidential search process to participate. This program has space for those who feel confident that the presidency is in their future and for those who are unsure.

Spouses and partners are strongly encouraged to engage fully in this exploration. Even though a presidential spouse may serve in a variety of capacities within the institution and outside it, including maintaining a separate professional career, the presidency has profound implications for marital and family life. Each cohort includes approximately 20 prospective presidents, and most participate with a spouse or partner.

How Will I Benefit?

This program will give you a framework for exploring your values and passions. If you are in a marriage or partnership, it will provide the two of you with an informed opportunity to explore together what serving in a presidency might mean. It will offer you a window into thinking about what might make an institution distinctive. It will provide you with new allies in the journey of discernment—both the CIC facilitators working closely with you and your fellow seminar participants. In short, it will strengthen your ability to secure and sustain a presidency.

Since 2005, approximately one-third of participants in the Presidential Vocation and Institutional Mission program have gone on to serve as college and university presidents. It is typical of participants that they choose the searches they enter based on their discernment of where there is a likelihood of sufficient alignment between their talents and commitments and an institution’s characteristics. CIC believes that this kind of thoughtful matching is a common feature of longer, more satisfying, and more successful presidencies.

“This program was crucial in my search process and in eventually selecting the right “mission-fit” university for my first presidency. The readings, discussions, and mentoring by experienced presidents created the perfect dialogue at just the right time for me to think about the next steps in my career. The inclusion of spouses and partners was important to me and adds to the impact of the experience.”

Jeff Gingerich, President, St. Bonaventure University and former Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs, University of Scranton

How Is This Program Structured?

Through seminars, small group discussions, individual consultations, and extensive reading, a team of facilitators—experienced presidents and their spouses—guide participants in this inquiry over the course of one year.

Program participants gather twice for group seminars. The first seminar takes place over four days in the summer, and the second lasts for two days in the winter. Participants read assigned materials in advance of each seminar. Each participating individual or couple also has at least three video consultations with members of the facilitator team spaced out over the program year.

Many practical aspects of the presidential search process deliberately are not part of this program. We do not practice interviewing or meet with search consultants. Other programs do those things well. What we intentionally do is read, reflect, discern, and discuss the applications of these activities to each participant’s life and career. The purpose is to help participants gain a better understanding of how to discern both an institution’s mission and their own calling.

Sample Seminar Topics

The seminar topics and readings vary each year. These past examples illustrate the program’s distinctive approach to the process of considering a college presidency.

Early in the Summer Seminar, participants meet in small groups to discuss texts such as:

  • Mary Catherine Bateson, “Composing a Life Story” (book excerpt); and
  • Robert Frost, “Two Tramps in Mud Time” (poem).

The discussion focuses on understandings of vocation. Participants consider questions such as: How do we discern our callings?

Several times in the summer gathering, participants meet in a large group. The topics on these occasions include the nature of a college presidency, the support presidents receive from their communities, and the importance of presidents aligning themselves with an institutional mission. Participants are informed by texts such as:

  • Jill Ker Conway, “A Different Choice” (book excerpt);
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Mecca and the Death of Mythology” (book excerpt); and
  • Abraham Lincoln, “Second Inaugural Address” (speech).

Discussion questions include: What will help us decide where we go and when?

Other authors include diverse voices, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Eboo Patel, Abigail and John Adams, Aristotle, Louise Erdrich, Henri Nouwen, Amy Tan, Dorothy Sayers, Thomas Merton, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Vincent Harding. The readings are deliberately eclectic—including the ancient and modern, the contemporary and classic, spiritual and secular—and are analytical, reflective, and creative.

Program Facilitators


Steven C. Bahls, president emeritus, Augustana College (2003–2022)


Jane Bahls, former presidential spouse, Augustana College (2003–2022)
Donna M. Carroll, president emerita, Dominican University (IL) (1994–2021) and interim president, North Central College (2022–2023)
Alan Cottrell, presidential spouse, Texas Lutheran University (since 2019)
Debbie Cottrell, president, Texas Lutheran University (since 2019)
Mary Dana Hinton, president, Hollins University (since 2020)
Robert Williams, presidential spouse, Hollins University (since 2020)

Program Dates and Costs

Summer Seminar

July 16–19, 2023
Essex, Vermont

Winter Seminar

February 25–27, 2024
Atlanta, Georgia

The Summer Seminar will be held at the Essex Resort, nestled on 18 acres between the vistas of the Green Mountains and the splendor of Lake Champlain, just 15 minutes outside of Burlington, Vermont.

Thanks to a generous grant from Lilly Endowment Inc., most expenses, including travel stipends for both the Summer and Winter Seminars as well as lodging, meals, consultations, and materials during the program, will be covered by CIC for participants and their spouses or partners. There is a one-time registration fee of $425 for the prospective president and $275 for an accompanying spouse or partner due upon acceptance into the program.

Contact Information

Steve Bahls, CIC senior advisor and president emeritus of Augustana College, is leading this project. Nominators and prospective participants can direct questions about the program to Titilayo Ufomata, CIC senior vice president for academic programs, by phone at (202) 466-7230 or email at or to Steve Bahls, by email at