Are Two Presidents Better Than One?

College of Idaho's unusual move has experts wondering whether two presidents will create dueling centers of power or reinforce each other. College says it vetted the situation thoroughly and is confident.

March 5, 2018
 
The College of Idaho
Newly hired College of Idaho co-presidents Jim Everett (left) and Doug Brigham (right).

In October, Doug Brigham called Jim Everett to talk about the College of Idaho's presidential search.

Brigham is the former president of a title and escrow company and the college's former board chair. He had applied for the College of Idaho presidency, but he did not know if Everett, former CEO of the region's YMCA, had also thrown his hat into the ring for the job.

Everett told Brigham he had in fact applied. And Brigham pitched the idea of a co-presidency.

“I said, ‘I’ll tell you what, I have a crazy idea,’” Brigham recalled. “‘If you tell me you don't like it and want to continue to go solo, I'm going to step out of the process.’”

As Brigham tells it, Everett replied that he liked the idea but would need to think about it some more. Ultimately, he agreed, and the College of Idaho, a 960-student private liberal arts college in Western Idaho, announced Feb. 24 that it was hiring both of them.

They will start as co-presidents in April, testing a largely new dynamic at the college presidential level. Although co-presidencies have taken place in business, experts strained to think of a precedent in higher education.

University systems operate with campus presidents, of course. Similar setups exist at a few private colleges, such as St. John’s College having different presidents at its campuses in Annapolis, Md., and Santa Fe, N.M. But two executive types don't always last for very long on a single campus, as evidenced by J. Keith Motley stepping down from the University of Massachusetts at Boston chancellorship last year just months after Bowdoin College's former president, Barry Mills, was brought on as deputy chancellor and chief operating officer.

College of Idaho leaders are well aware the structure is highly unusual. It was one of the major drawbacks the college's search committee and Board of Trustees evaluated, according to Laura Turner, who chairs the board. Trustees discussed whether they could carve out different roles like a CEO and a president or some sort of special assistant's role instead of hiring co-presidents.

“The uniqueness of the structure caused a lot of concern,” Turner said. “Doug and Jim felt strongly that, in any of those other structures, you'd have the No. 1 and No. 2 guy. They wanted to do it as co-presidents because they felt that diminishing one of their roles wasn't useful.”

Trustees were reassured because both Brigham and Everett had served on the college's board -- Brigham until 2017 and Everett about a decade before, Turner said. They've also known each other for decades, crossing paths while holding prominent positions in the region. Brigham served on committees at the Treasure Valley YMCA while Everett was CEO there.

Still, the search committee and trustees wanted to explore the idea in more depth. They formed a subcommittee of the search committee and did a two-month deep dive into how the structure would work.

“The responsibilities and accountability for the organization are clearly defined,” Turner said. “There is a matrix of who in the senior cabinet reports to Doug and who reports to Jim.”

Generally, Brigham will focus more on finance, academic affairs and student affairs, and the directors in those areas are expected to report to him. Enrollment will be shared. Everett will have athletics and college relations reporting to him and is expected to be heavily involved in fund-raising. At the same time, ultimate responsibility for the institution will lie with both presidents. Crossover is likely to take place, particularly when it comes to fund-raising. What college president wouldn't like to have a second version of him or herself to go on donor visits?

The delegation of authority will be key to whether the arrangement can succeed, college leadership and search experts predicted.

“It would be inefficient if the co-presidents had to come to a unified decision about every issue before them,” Susan Resneck Pierce, president emerita of the University of Puget Sound and a consultant for colleges and presidents, said via email. “There of course would be a problem if the co-presidents disagreed about decisions which had implications for both of their areas of responsibility.”

All parties are optimistic that the two presidents' long-standing relationship will allow them to resolve any major disagreements. But in the event of an unsolvable dispute, the plan is for the presidents to bring the issue before the board for settlement.

Such a process comes with the risk of breaking down the traditional firewall between presidential and board responsibilities.

“Having the board chair adjudicate in such circumstances invites another problem: involving the chair in operations rather than strategy and policy,” Pierce said. “Then too the co-presidents will have to guard against a phenomenon that every co-parent will recognize: the end run to the other parent for a more favorable response.”

The mere fact of disagreement could undermine confidence in any resolution. A key attribute leaders must bring to the table is confidence in any decisions, said Dennis Barden, senior partner at the search firm Witt/Kieffer.

A co-presidency isn't necessarily without merits, however. Pierce said the concept might work at the College of Idaho because of what appears to be a long friendship between Brigham and Everett. Barden could see advantages to a leader having a co-president, because presidents often struggle to find others who share their experiences and can offer sound advice.

“Presidents don't have many people they can turn to and get candid, direct, thoughtful and often constructive advice,” Barden said. “That is a real problem. If this partnership is everything they say it is, that will be a very significant benefit.”

Backers and detractors of the co-president idea emerged even before the College of Idaho announced it was trying the idea. In February, Karen Gross wrote a piece for the Aspen Institute arguing for some colleges to consider co-presidents to fill what has become a nearly impossible job for one person. But Inside Higher Ed blogger Matt Reed responded with a list of reasons he prefers single presidents.

While many of the drawbacks to co-presidencies are abstract, revolving around the pitfalls of multiple sources of power or potential conflicts, one appears very real: pay. It will likely be more expensive for colleges to pay two presidents instead of one. That would seem to make the model hard to follow for small or struggling colleges.

The College of Idaho's co-presidents have proposed sharing "one presidential compensation package,” according to the release announcing their hiring. But college officials declined to provide additional information about what their pay would be or whether the cost of benefits is expected to be higher for two presidents than for one.

Former president Marvin Henberg received $290,516 in total compensation in the year ending in June 2015, according to the college's IRS form 990 filed for that year. Its last permanent president, Charlotte Borst, left in 2017 after just two years. Her salary does not appear on the college's tax form for the year ending in June 2016, and more recent forms are not yet available.

Brigham says the co-presidents' priorities once they take over will be enrollment, fund-raising and managing expenses.

Data provided by the college show an enrollment decline in recent years.

Brigham didn't get too far into any specific strategies, because he wants to start the new co-presidency with a listening tour to hear from faculty and staff. So far, though, the increased bandwidth that comes from hiring two presidents has helped with at least one thing -- Everett was on the road in Georgia Friday and was not available for an interview with Inside Higher Ed. But Brigham was.

Time will tell whether the model is successful in other ways.

“Hopefully, like most things, the proof's in the pudding,” Brigham said. “We're not taking any victory laps by any means at this point. We haven't started yet, and we have a lot of work to do.”

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