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Talking Points: Presidents Under Pressure
Talking Points: Presidents Under Pressure

Institutional leaders are facing new challenges and rising threats. Here’s how to start solving the crisis.

By Stephen Joel Trachtenberg , Gerald B. Kauvar


Paul Garland



In June 2012, the University of Virginia's board of rectors pressured the institution's president, Teresa Sullivan, to resign just two years into her tenure. The board later reversed itself and reinstated Sullivan as president. In October 2013, Howard University President Sidney Ribeau announced he would step down at year's end, despite signing a contract extension with the Washington, D.C., institution three months earlier.

Their circumstances differed: Sullivan faced pressure to quickly adopt MOOC-like technologies while Ribeau dealt with Howard's plummeting credit rating and falling U.S. News & World Report rankings. But both cases illustrate an alarming trend: College and university presidents are under attack. The average tenure of a college president? Seven years, according to a 2012 study by the American Council on Education; in 2006, the average was 8.5 years.

In the past decade, scores of institutional executives have retired, resigned, or been removed from their posts. In some instances, clear evidence of wrongdoing exists—such as the case of a recently dismissed president who reportedly used his institution's credit card for personal purchases. In others, the details precipitating the divorce of president and institution are murkier—a leader who receives a no-confidence vote from the university faculty in protest over eliminated programs, for example, or one who tangles with the board about financial priorities. The days of Nicholas Murray Butler, who served New York's Columbia University as president for more than four decades, are gone.

In the research for our book, Presidencies Derailed: Why University Leaders Fail and How to Prevent It, we studied several failed administrations and discovered causes and cures for this higher education leadership crisis. Here we present two solutions for the parties most intimately involved in the process: governing boards and the presidents they hire.

Tips for better hires

Successful presidencies begin with scrupulous hiring processes. Institutions hire a human being, not a resume, yet too often they're seduced by the prestige of the candidate or the institution from which he or she comes. Boards and search firms instead should focus on how candidates fit the college or university's culture and how they would address its financial situation and goals. Questions that shed light on these important intangible qualities include:

  • Can the prospective leader think strategically and speak frankly without coming off as a fearmonger or a Pollyanna?
  • Will the potential president be willing to change his or her mind when evidence or events provide greater wisdom?
  • Can he or she understand and adapt to the culture of academe without being cowed by it?

A broad view is necessary when seeking good college or university leaders. Effective search teams know that the traits of a great institutional chief executive are not limited to those employed at major research universities. Hundreds of prime candidates can be found at community colleges and regional four-year institutions whose highest credentials conferred are master's degrees. Outside of higher education, highly qualified candidates are plentiful in business, government, and the military.

The president's contract should include a clear explanation of how he or she will be evaluated. An annual performance review is customary and should measure progress on individual and institutional goals, such as admissions and fundraising numbers, graduation rates, and staff turnover. Smart boards develop these goals in collaboration with the incoming president and, after the hire, have patience with the new leader. Even well-equipped executives will have vocal critics among campus stakeholders and face financial or political hurdles when pursuing goals. Early in a president's tenure, progress toward the goals may be more likely than achievement for many objectives.

Earning trust starts with transparency

The great presidents of the 21st century are those who possess a strong sense of self, a profound belief in education, and a wry sense of humor (and partake, perhaps, in an occasional glass of rye). But they also must be skilled and savvy communicators who gain the confidence of their stakeholders, especially the boards that hired them. Yet many chief executives lack trust in those advisers. Forty percent of presidents—including 68 percent of those at public, four-year institutions—would replace members of their boards if given the chance, according to a 2013 survey by Gallup and Inside Higher Ed.

Presidents depend on the support of their faculty and staff, but herein lies another trust gap. Leaders, especially at state and local systems, are torn between allegiance to their individual institution and the system's governors. If a president doesn't defend every program and position in each department on campus, there is potential for a no-confidence vote from the faculty, which typically leads to the leader's departure. If an executive fights back against the system's leaders too aggressively, whether publicly or privately, dismissal by the board is all but certain.

Good presidents bridge these divides by educating their constituents. That doesn't mean a chief executive must hold a terminal degree or even be an academic. Presidents must be excellent communicators, sharing information that is timely and truthful and fully explaining their decisions. One of the examples from Presidencies Derailed focuses on a university leader who made a controversial and unilateral decision about a campus beautification project. When faced with faculty and staff criticism about his violation of shared-governance principles, he simply issued an angry, multipage memo outlining his decision. Understanding the value of honest dissent and opening a dialogue with these important community members may have spared this executive a firestorm—and possibly his job.

A Solvable Crisis

Some institutions have begun implementing these solutions. A thorough, yearslong search for the next president of Pennsylvania State University seemed to be at its end in late 2013. The institution was on the verge of hiring the president of the State University of New York's Upstate Medical University when a search firm learned that the candidate had received significant unauthorized payments from companies linked to the institution. He withdrew from consideration—but imagine the furor if that news had broken after Penn State announced the hire?

More colleges and universities need to take such care when bringing in new leaders. Modern presidents will lead institutions that almost without exception find expenses increasing and revenues dwindling. Higher education faces unprecedented challenges from newer, nimbler information providers such as MOOCs. In the United States particularly, public debate about the true value of a baccalaureate degree has led states to consider performance-based budgets that prioritize skills training over the traditional liberal arts core.

The pace of these changes shows no signs of slowing, yet the leadership turnover is increasing at a faster rate. Colleges and universities that will survive, even thrive, in this environment have boards focused on finding and hiring entrepreneurial-minded leaders who understand the importance of communication. Higher education cannot hope to overcome the tall hurdles it faces if its executives continually contend with the guillotine.

About the Authors Stephen Joel Trachtenberg

Stephen J. Trachtenberg is the president emeritus of The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and a former president of the University of Hartford in Connecticut.

Gerald B. Kauvar

Gerald B. Kauvar is a research professor of public policy and public administration and special assistant to the president emeritus at George Washington.

 

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