Tenure of University Presidents

How long is long enough?

June 23, 2013

In the U.S. university presidents are serving longer (8.5 years on average) and into older age: 49 percent are now older than 60 years of age, compared to 14 percent 20 years ago. In this regard, the US is an anomaly since presidents serve at the discretion of their boards and can remain in office longer than presidents elected by the professoriate (the traditional European model) whose tenures are usually limited in length by regulation, internal politics, or national changes in government.

I found myself pondering the question of presidential tenure after I got wind of two pieces of news. In my country, Chile, the rector of a private university announced that she was stepping down after 31 years at the helm of her institution. She had founded this university in the early 1980’s, and then presided over its rise in the first decade and its fall in the subsequent two. Clearly, too long.

In Brazil, the prestigious State University of Campinas held presidential elections a few months ago. The incumbent leadership lost, and left office after only four years—time to launch important innovations but not enough time to develop them. Clearly, too short. The ballot was close. So close, indeed, that the fate of the university was decided by the administrative staff (Yes, they vote in Campinas, as do students), who favored the winning candidate by a margin of 4 to 1, while the losing party received 52% of the faculty vote.

Leaving aside the weird impact of the vote of the administrative staff in Campinas, the fact is that when elections are held every four years, the presidency is up for grabs quite often.

In Chile, the tenure of presidents at public universities who are elected by the faculty, is limited by law to two, 4-year terms. There is no term limit in the case of private institutions. My unsystematic, yet close, evaluation of university presidencies in Chile suggests that the rectors who succeeded in noticeably changing their institutions for the better held the office for over 10 years. It seems that shorter periods are not sufficient for that level of impact. On the other hand, a long tenure can result in damage to the institution when, as it is often the case with private institutions in Latin America, presidents are often (also) owners of their institution and there is no independent board to put an end to poor leadership at the top.

Effective governance is not, of course, principally a matter of the length of presidential mandates. But whether presidents are elected by their constituents or appointed by a board has an effect on the kind of scrutiny given to a president and determines whether a successful administration is allowed to continue or whether ineffectual chiefs will be removed from office.

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