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Watch Your Mouth

May 2, 2012

When the Board of Supervisors of the Louisiana State University System voted 12-4 on Friday to fire John V. Lombardi, the system’s president since 2007, the decision came as a surprise to many in higher education.

But on second thought, many people would say it wasn’t a surprise at all.

Lombardi, who has often been characterized as an outspoken and confrontational leader by peers, supervisors and those who work for him, left his two previous presidencies -- at the University of Florida and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst -- amid disputes with his superiors. While he had numerous successes in those roles, and has had faculty and student backing through some of his controversies, he clashed with governing boards and state politicians, as well as others in higher education.

In Louisiana, he repeatedly spoke out against the governor’s budget priorities and attempts to reshape the system’s governance, made impolitic statements about how plenty of students could afford to pay more tuition, and faced criticism from lawmakers about what they saw as a demeaning attitude, among other things.

That Friday’s decision might have been influenced by state politicians, as the board’s minority claimed, should also not be a surprise to people in public higher education. While members of the board’s majority rejected claims that they were carrying out a directive from the governor’s office, and said Lombardi had not shown the leadership for the system they were hoping for, they noted in Friday's meeting that Lombardi’s relationship with lawmakers contributed to his dismissal. “He doesn’t have credibility with the administration and with rank-and-file legislators,” said board member Stephen Perry at Friday’s meeting. Lombardi, who occasionally blogs for Inside Higher Ed, declined to comment on the board's decision.

At a time when state resource constraints and national pressure to increase college completion rates mean politicians and the public are turning a skeptical eye toward public higher education institutions, it is not at all surprising that an outspoken, sometimes intransigent system president would clash with lawmakers, particularly when those lawmakers feel the need to demonstrate success within a short time frame. When those same lawmakers appoint university governing boards, it is not surprising that such a president might end up out of work, either.

Lombardi’s repeated clashes with governing boards and lawmakers, both in Louisiana and in previous positions, and his firing raise questions about the nature of leadership at public universities these days. In particular, it questions whether the types of leaders that politicians want in these roles are the same as those who can be effective, and whether either type of president is really the type of leader who is good for these institutions in the long run.

“I think there is a need for dynamic leadership at public universities,” said John Thelin, a professor at the University of Kentucky who studies the history of higher education and a supporter of Lombardi. “But that’s not to say that anyone who speaks loudly is necessarily speaking wisely."

Politics and the Presidency

The emergence of college completion and access as prominent issues in national and state politics has had a direct effect on higher education governance. When voters and the media hold governors and legislators accountable for outcomes in public higher education, these politicians are justifiably going to want to exert influence on these areas. And because politicians are elected in two- and four-year cycles, there is pressure to show success in the short term.

This change has been documented in elementary and secondary education, where independent education executives have over time become direct gubernatorial appointments in many states.

Many would say the increase in political attention for higher education is a good thing. For one thing, it brings significantly more public attention to colleges and universities, which can result in new ideas on how to improve underperforming systems or institutions. It also brings a greater measure of accountability to a sector that has historically operated without sustained political attention but with a significant amount of public investment. It can also drive more rapid change than might otherwise happen.

Conflict emerges when a politician's plans run counter to what a university or system president wants, particularly when short-term goals might clash with the long-term interests of an institution, which presidents and governing boards are charged with ensuring. Critics of the current dynamic say politicians want presidents and governing board members who speak in concert with the state’s governing executive, not those who vociferously oppose their policies.

There have been instances in recent years of politicians trying to exert influence on higher education – either directly or through the appointment of board members – to make a change that runs counter to what institutional leaders want for their campuses. In Texas, where Governor Rick Perry has appointed every member of the state’s six governing boards, institution presidents have objected to proposed reforms.

But when a president disagrees with the people who control his or her fate, the job suddenly becomes significantly less secure.

Stephen Nelson, a professor at Bridgewater State University who studies the “ideological battleground” of the university presidency and just published a book titled Decades of Chaos and Revolution: Showdowns for College Presidents, said the role of public university president necessitates tackling a series of often-controversial issues.

He pointed to a conversation he once had with James Duderstadt, the former president of the University of Michigan. “He said to me that he faced at least three or four times every year where his presidency was at stake,” Nelson said. “And the way he put it, he could either finesse the issue to continue to march down the road or he could end up in the ditch.”

Finessing an issue means swallowing pride and going along with an administrative priority that isn’t worth losing a presidency over, he said. Presidents have a finite amount of political capital and leeway with politicians, he said. Spending that capital on every fight means politicians' plans aren't enacted, but your tenure will also be short. Finessing small issues means you have a longer presidency or more capital for the big fights.

Lombardi wasn’t known for finessing issues. He was not afraid of voicing his position on gubernatorial proposals -- even those that other higher education administrators might decide not to tackle. He criticized the state's Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, a politically popular scholarship program that provides aid to students with no demonstrated financial need, as a "state entitlement gift." In April 2010, he criticized the governor's push to change the system's governance structure, saying "To rearrange the deck chairs at this time is surely a waste of time when we ought to be focusing on the main event." 

Nelson said not all of fights Lombardi picked were probably worth it. “I think it is a question of temperament,” he said. “Maybe something is a bad program, but if it’s popular is it worth it to bring it up?”

Lombardi is not the only president whose job was put in jeopardy after he or she took a politically unpopular stance. Several people point to recent controversies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the University of Oregon, where presidents sought more independence from their governing system -- a politically unpopular position in those states. Neither president is still at the institution in question.

It’s not always the case that a president loses his job by publicly standing against a push by politicians. Francisco Cigarroa, chancellor of the University of Texas system, faced pressure to enact a series of reforms last year. Instead of caving to political pressure, however, he won over a board that appeared skeptical.  

A Good Job?

Thelin said Lombardi was an outlier among the current crop of public higher education leaders. He said Lombardi’s willingness to speak out on higher education matters that were sometimes politically unpopular – such as decreases in state funding and merit-based scholarships – and to defend those stances in the face of pressure set him apart from other leaders.

He said he’d like to see more leaders like Lombardi. “I do think that state university presidents have tended to be fairly tepid and predictable,” Thelin said.

He said the current crop of leaders isn’t notably different from previous generations of university presidents. He points to the McCarthy era, when many public university presidents succumbed to political pressure to enforce loyalty oaths. The difference this time, he said, is that public higher education faces myriad pressures to reform – such as decreased state funding and more career-oriented programs – that many in higher education say is bad for the sector in the long run.

But as Lombardi’s case illustrates, even if having a president who speaks and challenges politicians is good for higher education, it is not necessarily a sustainable path.

And since it doesn’t seem likely that politicians are suddenly going to give university leaders more freedom to say whatever they want, the new political environment might require a different sort of leader to be successful.

Michael A. Baer, a vice president and director with Isaacson, Miller, a higher education search firm, agreed that presidents are not necessarily as outspoken about issues as they once were, particularly on issues that weren’t directly tied to the fate of an institution. “If you looked back 30 or 40 years, there would probably be more presidents that spoke out on public and political issues much more than you will find now,” he said.  

Part of that is because boards are more intrusive. But he also noted that the job of university president has changed. Thirty years ago, fund-raising was an afterthought for many public university presidents. Now it’s a large part of their jobs. And too many political positions and public fights can close off doors.

Today’s presidents might also have learned from the tales of men like Lombardi. Presidents may be just as big of champions of higher education and object to just as many reforms, Baer said, but do their advocating behind closed doors instead of in the media.

“I think you have a lot of university presidents whose job, particularly at public universities, is more heavily defined by their ability to communicate with political and policy leaders, as well as the business community,” he said.

 

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