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Earlier this year, Chancellor William McRaven of the University of Texas made a remarkable statement. “The toughest job in the nation,” he said, “is the one of an academic- or health-institution president.” Under normal circumstances, one might take this claim with a grain of salt. In the academy, we all like to complain about our jobs.

McRaven, however, is not a typical academic executive. A retired four-star admiral and Navy SEAL, McRaven’s last job prior to the chancellorship at Texas was running America’s Special Operations Command. Among other tasks, he planned and supervised the raid that killed of Osama bin Laden. When a decorated Navy SEAL says that a job is tough, and leaves after three years, we ought to take special notice. 

Higher education commentators frequently suggest that being a president is hard today because of the unique times in which we live: times defined by limited resources, protest, conflict, and social media controversy. In truth, however, leaders across all the public and private sectors of the economy face equally great challenges right now, from global competition to constant pressure for quarterly profit, and protest and upheaval are nothing new in higher education  So what makes the job of university president so uniquely difficult?   After serving as a college president and talking with dozens of colleagues over the years, I have concluded it is due to structural institutional leadership challenges faced by no other CEOs. 

To begin, college and university presidents answer to a very large number of constituencies: students, staff, faculty, trustees, alumni, and, in the public sector, political leaders.  None of these constituencies can be ignored. All are outspoken. And most of the time, they desire radically different outcomes.

Trustees probably want greater efficiency, innovation, and cost reductions that are anathema to the professoriate and staff.  Alumni want to preserve the campus values and atmosphere they treasured decades ago, despite the desire of other constituencies, particularly current students, to move forward and evolve.  Alumni also want sports victories, an outcome faculty do not prioritize.  Current students frequently demand instant changes in management, finances, and curriculum that all the other constituencies reject.  Political leaders want demonstrable employment results and cheap (or free) tuition without undue expense to taxpayers.  Unlike the private sector, where the desire for profit serves as a clear and unequivocal unifying objective for board, investors, and (most) employees, there is no single, underlying goal to tie these disparate groups together.    

The academy’s system of distributing power among these constituencies makes managing this complex mosaic even more difficult.  Presidents in the academy have much less direct power than most CEOs.  Unlike C suite executives in other leadership contexts, many college and university presidents typically need support – and often formal votes of approval – from faculty and staff senates in order to proceed with even mundane changes in university practice. 

Tenured faculty hold great power, and they cannot be fired and are not subject to the forms of control or influence, through compensation or job assignment, that CEOs in other settings routinely use to bring their work force into alignment with institutional goals.  In the public higher education sector, the ability of a president to set tuition or issue debt is subject to political control from state legislatures, a challenge unlike that in any other field.  And students utilize the power to protest more frequently than constituencies in any other non-political sphere. 

Board composition makes the exercise of presidential power even more difficult.  In the private sector, the average corporation board has nine members.  This compact size allows for a close and intimate working relationship between CEO and board.  Many colleges and universities, however, possess much larger boards, with some possessing as many as thirty board members.  In public systems, these board members may, at times, represent narrow political constituencies with very specific goals.  For private institutions, the fact that many board members are also major philanthropic donors can make honest and open communication between board and president challenging, and in some cases, impossible.  

The vague character of our systems of shared governance add further complication.  Most organizations in other settings enjoy clear lines of authority.  Even when power is distributed, it is distributed so that everyone understands their role and its limits.  In the academy, however, those lines are often incredibly hazy.  Many colleges and universities possess multiple governing documents – articles of incorporation, state laws, community constitutions, faculty codes, and student constitutions. 

These controlling documents, some decades old, or adopted in radically different epochs, often conflict, sometimes explicitly, more often implicitly, in ways that make it very unclear what a president and other constituencies can and cannot do.  Many customary academic practices must be respected even when not reflected in these documents.  Presidents are frequently criticized by constituencies for violating these controlling documents or the perceived “spirit” thereof, when in fact, no other course is possible.  It is also difficult to harmonize these conflicting charters and customary norms, for any proposed changes to long-cherished privileges, whether actual or imagined, trigger vociferous opposition. 

In sum, the academy’s system of shared and distributed power among a large number of constituencies with very different interests, accompanied by unwieldy board structures and conflicting and vague governance rules, makes it much more difficult for a university president to define and implement a clear agenda or implement rapid changes in response to changing contexts than it is for CEO peers in other institutional settings.  Stated another way, a university president may need significantly greater leadership skills to achieve good outcomes than leaders in other contexts.  Because of this, one can and should expect a higher percentage of failed or underachieving presidencies in the academy than we might in other sectors, public or private. 

One can debate whether this is a good or bad thing. If a university possesses strong finances, a positive brand and a culture of academic excellence, then the fact that it is hard for a president to make major changes of any kind is probably positive.  In these cases, the existence of numerous brakes on presidential-led change may help the president operate as a long-term steward and honest broker between competing constituencies. If, however, change and innovation at a university is necessary for improvement, to adjust to changing academic or economic conditions, or to insure institutional survival itself, then the fact that we have made presidential leadership so difficult  – even by the standards of a Navy SEAL – may be a matter of concern. 

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