On Nov. 1, a rumor circulated on social media claiming UND President Andrew Armacost had died. That rumor was untrue, and the university sent out word that Armacost was alive and working. But how do universities in the state system handle the sudden departure of a president?

That circumstance is governed by a pair of State Board of Higher Education policies that deal with appointing an acting chief executive officer, and creating a search committee for another leader. Finding a qualified successor is a process that can take months, regardless of the size of the school.

Some university presidents in North Dakota and Minnesota have unexpectedly died while on the job. In 2010 in Moorhead, Minnesota, Concordia College President Pamela Jolicoeur died after suffering a stroke, and in 1993, Leslie C. Duly, president of Bemidji State University, died of an apparent heart attack. According to North Dakota State University’s website, Laurel D. Loftsgard died of cancer in 1987, after serving as president for 19 years.

SBHE policy 601.2 deals with appointing an acting president. The chancellor of the NDUS system, after consulting with the chair of the SBHE and university administrators, may appoint an acting president, in the event that the current president leaves unexpectedly, becomes disabled or is not able to perform their duties for more than 14 days. Universities may also create an in-house “succession or person-in-charge policy,” though the person appointed to the role must be an employee of the North Dakota University System, or of the university in question.

At UND there is no such institutional policy, according to David Dodds, the university’s spokesperson.

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“We would defer to existing SBHE policies on the matter,” Dodds said.

An acting president can’t serve longer than the next SBHE meeting, at which time their term can be extended, or until an interim president has been chosen or until the current president is able to resume their duties, after a serious illness or injury, for example.

Policy 601.1 governs the presidential search process. The selection of a president is only final after SBHE action. Interim presidents are also appointed by a vote of the full board, and serve until the search process has been completed.

The chancellor of the university system must convene a search committee for a new president. It’s a large group consisting of voting and nonvoting members. A committee consists of an NDUS official, the chancellor or their designee, faculty members and administrators, an undergraduate and graduate student, if the school has such a program, an alumnus or member of an alumni foundation and an academic dean or vice president. Also, one “representative of the institution's external constituency with a demonstrated deep interest in and support of the institution, its programs, and its role in community activities,” must be selected.

The selection process can take more than six months to complete. The university needing a new president must pay all search costs.

Once a draft contract is drawn up by legal counsel, the committee creates a profile for the job containing the minimum qualifications for the position, and the desired characteristics for the candidate. That profile is then widely advertised.

Applications are reviewed by the committee, and members can interview the candidates if necessary. A search consultant can also be hired by the committee. Members must consult with the chancellor on the candidates as well. The committee is supposed to provide at least three candidates for consideration by the board.

The full SBHE can then review those applications and interview some, all or none of the candidates. If none are interviewed, then it’s back to the drawing board for the committee. Board members can also select other people to interview for the job. Once the interviews are completed, the board either votes to appoint the new president or begin the search anew.