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    A blog from the Center for International Higher Education

Presidential Tenure: The Long and the Short of It
July 8, 2013 - 8:12pm

I find Bernasconi's blog on presidential tenure both sensible and provocative. We're obviously engaging at a level of large generalizations applicable to higher education globally, with all the risks inherent in that,  but here are a few reflections and, like Bernasconi, I’ll focus mostly on the Americas. 

I'd not draw symmetry in the problems faced on the private and public sides. The problems of the short public presidential tenure are worse than those of the long private tenure. Institutional planning and development require reasonable time horizons. They also require reliable time horizons, whereas shortness of tenure often involves abrupt, unpredictable changes. These changes reflect conflicts that make it difficult for groups to work effectively with one another and they reduce the incentives for them to compromise and commit to common purpose. Such problems are especially serious as many higher education systems shift from state-centered standardized rule-making to allow more autonomy at the institutional level. With autonomy comes responsibility, which is undermined by the lack of sustained leadership. In turn, it is difficult to hold leadership accountable in environments of rapid, unpredictable turnover. True, for many public university students and staff internal democracy with actively ongoing participation is an over-riding value in itself and many reforms that others judge necessary would undermine their power and participation.

On the other hand, I do not know how often the private universities have presidents for extremely long periods, though of course the periods are on average significantly longer than in the public sector. Some cases of excess duration, such as the Chilean one cited by Bernasconi, involve founding presidents. Others involve small and dubious private institutions where the president and the board are quite intertwined and the board does not gain the independence to dismiss or threaten a president; checks and balances are weak and personal interest is taken for institutional interest. As with any political institution there is a “too long,” whatever the disagreement over when that comes. It would be valuable to study the relationship between time in office and institutional well-being at Latin American (and other) private universities of some academic seriousness.

Similarly valuable would be exploration of Latin American and other public universities that somehow combine vibrant electoral politics with short presidential terms on the one hand with credible institutional performance on the other hand. Bernasconi notes the electoral process at the State University of Campinas in Sao Paulo. Elections for the presidency take place every four years and in the most recent election the vote of administrative staff was decisive in ousting the incumbent administration before it could get far with its innovative reforms. And yet Campinas is unquestionably one of Latin America’s leading universities. How does it combine Latin America’s rather modal public university electoral politics and academic quality?  We know that private universities in Latin America break from the traditional public university governance patterns but it’s long been a debatable question whether stable governance can be achieved in special institutions (Venezuela’s Simon Bolivar, for example) within the public sector. Many assume that stable governance and academic university quality requires escaping the public sector’s typical electoral norms, which is difficult to do. But it may be that public universities (Campinas, for example) with selective admissions and faculties can flourish even with electoral politics that cripples more typical public universities. A key may lie in norms of academic responsibility. One can see a parallel in some leading Latin American private universities have “co-government” imposed by national law; their students and faculty resist putting narrow politics ahead of responsible academic policy. The norm of co-government imported from the public sector does not undermine their select academic standing.

As to where the US fits, Bernasconi considers it an anomalous case in respect to presidential tenure. To be sure, the public university electoral process identified in Brazil and Chile has virtually no counterpart in the US. The cases are radically different. How different the U.S. public pattern is from that in other parts of the world is less certain. What is certain, however, is that a significant minority of global higher education enrollment (50% in Latin America) is now private and in that sector there is at least some significant similarity between U.S. and global patterns. Power to govern institutions is concentrated in presidents and boards and very much not in students and faculty. We might say that the US is much more atypical in the public than in the private sector—in part because it is atypical in having presidential tenure patterns in the public sector not totally different from those in the private sector.




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