When a College President Decides to Leave

It is not as glamorous as when they arrive, but in many ways it’s just as important, writes Roger Martin.

November 22, 2022
Illustration of the hand of an executive passing a torch to the hand of another exectuive
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Hardly anyone wants to write about the end of a college presidency. Leaving is not as glamorous as arriving. But eventually, all presidents leave their institutions, either to retire or to take on new responsibilities. In many ways, leaving is just as important as arriving.

As a retired president and executive search consultant, I receive lots of queries from sitting presidents contemplating leaving the presidency, especially in the wake of this pandemic, wanting to know how to do it. I also receive queries from boards about how best to implement a successful transition.

Ideally, presidential transitions should be unremarkable: the outgoing president resigns or retires, the board institutes a search, the new president arrives, and the college stays on course as though very little has changed, even though it has. But whether presidential transitions are normal or rocky, the process of leaving is not entirely understood either by the president who is considering leaving or by the board who must hire a successor.

Why do presidents decide to leave their institutions?

Age is often the reason, of course. That’s not to say that presidents can’t still be vigorous into their 70s—I know some who are. But most of us begin to slow down around then. Of course, it is against the law to discriminate against someone because of age, but colleges and universities need active and resolute leadership.

Having finished the job is another reason. I can think of a fellow president who inherited a university that had been running huge deficits. For 11 years, he worked diligently to turn the institution around by increasing enrollments, strengthening fundraising and renewing the academic program. After that time, he had done as much as he could and decided to move on. He left while his college was on a high and is now remembered as a transformational president. For presidents like him who have done as much as they reasonably can, nothing’s wrong with turning the keys over to someone who can build on their achievements and make the college an even stronger institution.

Other presidents decide to leave out of sheer exhaustion, which is happening more often these days in the wake of the pandemic. I have a friend who became a college president just after the Great Recession in 2008. She immediately had to deal with severe budget challenges. She rebuilt her institution, an exhausting process, and in 2019, at age 66, was considering retirement because she felt she had done as much as she could, like the president I just mentioned.

Then came COVID. It was a terrible time to search for a new president, so the board chair asked her to stay on for at least another year or so. In dealing with the pandemic, she expended an enormous amount of new energy enforcing mask and social distancing mandates, instituting online classes, and having to let go a large number of faculty because of reduced enrollments. The institution is no longer in crisis mode, and she recently told me that next year she will announce her retirement.

With the exception of occasional crises like the pandemic or the Great Recession, when it makes sense not to desert an institution, I have a 10-year rule: presidents should normally serve a particular college and university for no fewer than six years but no more than 10, give or take a year or two.

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Presidents who serve for only a couple of years—getting the community excited about needed changes and then bailing out before those changes can be implemented—can do irreparable harm to their institution. It takes at least six years—probably more—to make a significant difference, like building a stronger endowment, running a successful capital campaign or upgrading the curriculum. But presidents who serve for an overly long time can also cause irreparable damage to their institution, especially if they have run out of energy and ideas. The community, including the Board of Trustees, may then be anticipating new leadership.

What are some of the right and wrong ways for a president to step down?

At the beginning of my 10th year of my first presidency, and after talking things over with my wife, I made an arguably gutsy decision: I told my board chair that I had probably done all I could and would be leaving at the end of my 11th year. That was both a bad and good move. It was bad because I didn’t have a clue what I would do next. I didn’t have tenure, so even if I had wanted to, I couldn’t go back into the faculty. Furthermore, with one daughter beginning college and the other two years away, I didn’t have job security. I probably would have been better off waiting until I had secured my next job before announcing that I was planning to step down.

Yet I gave my college a gift—more than a year to plan for a search. Boards often hear around December that their presidents will be leaving six months later in June and then either must rush to put together a search or appoint an interim. In my case, a search could begin in the fall of my final academic year, and when my successor was appointed in January, I could help with the transition.

Then there’s the wrong way to leave. As a consultant, I once did a search for a university whose president was retiring after a successful 12-year run. If not a transformational president, he had given his college meritorious service. He announced his retirement to the community, and plans were under way to celebrate his time in office with an honorary degree at commencement.

After that, everything went sour. He did not like the board’s choice of his successor, believing that a member of his cabinet who had applied for the presidency should have been chosen. Then he complained publicly that he wasn’t being given a bonus even though it wasn’t in his contract. The result: an otherwise good president who normally would have been celebrated and fondly remembered left his university under a dark cloud.

Needless to say, an outgoing president should not be immediately involved in the search for their successor. That must be done exclusively by the board, with the help of a board-appointed search committee. The outgoing president only supports the board-driven transition process.

Moreover, presidents who have retired or stepped down should get reinvolved with the college only if their successor invites them to do so. For example, if the outgoing president is still living in the area, the new president might want them to serve on a committee. Frankly, I would politely turn the invitation down in the interest of moving on. But if the outgoing president accepts committee membership, they should remember that they are no longer the president.

Or perhaps the outgoing president is invited back to campus to speak at an alumni event. They should do this, but do so with modesty. A friend who had just become a college president told me of inviting her predecessor back to campus as a courtesy to speak briefly at an alumni reunion. The former president proceeded to give a 50-minute oration, as though he had never retired.

Celebrating a Departing President

There are many ways to recognize an outgoing president who’s given meritorious service beyond offering them an outsize retirement bonus, which is not only unnecessary but can also send the wrong message to alumni donors. “Why should I support my struggling alma mater when the board just gave the outgoing president a $5 million bonus?” is a comment I once heard in such a situation.

Nor is it necessarily a good idea to name a facility for the outgoing president. I discouraged my two colleges from naming a facility after me, feeling that if they did this, they would lose a naming opportunity to raise much-needed money. If a donor wants to honor the departing president with a gift to name a campus facility, that’s one thing. It’s quite another for the board to do this without such a gift.

The board can show its appreciation for an outgoing president in more appropriate ways. For instance, it can give the outgoing president emeritus status and even an honorary degree. Besides being a gracious way of saying thank you, doing this sends a public message that the former president acted honorably and did a good job.

The board should honor the contributions of the president’s partner, especially if they have not been compensated by the college. When I stepped down as the leader of Moravian College, I was given an honorary degree but, to my complete and joyful surprise, so was my wife. My success at Moravian was to a large degree because of her uncompensated dedication to the college by attending or organizing social events and fundraisers while holding down a job outside the college and bringing up our two children. Spouses are often the unsung heroes of a college’s prosperity—the behind-the-scenes supporters of their partners. They are often indirectly responsible for large gifts from donors, and yet they rarely receive the recognition they deserve.

Finally, the board should invite the former president to all future presidential inaugurations. When a new president is being inaugurated, it sends a positive message to see the past presidents up on the stage. They’ve all contributed in various ways to the institution, and while they may have left, their legacy should live on—especially if they departed in some of the positive ways I’ve recommended here.

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Roger Martin is a former dean at Harvard University Divinity School and a past president of Moravian University and Randolph-Macon College. He is the author of Racing Odysseus: A College President Becomes a Freshman Again (University of California Press) and Off to College: A Guide for Parents (University of Chicago Press). In retirement, he serves as executive director of the British Schools and Universities Foundation.

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