Presidents

Brit Kirwan on the 'troubling' transformation of college athletics

Brit Kirwan says athletics have spiraled out of control during his 25 years as a university leader, and that he and other presidents have little power to solve the problem.

Exit interview with outgoing University System of Maryland Chancellor Brit Kirwan

After 25 years leading two major universities and a public higher ed system, Brit Kirwan has retired. In an interview, he discusses online education, historically black universities and other key issues.

Presidents say they want more input in faculty hiring and tenure decisions

Presidents overwhelmingly say they should have more input in faculty hiring and tenure decisions. But just how much say should they have? 

At Capilano U., administrators seize a sculpture caricaturing the president

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At Canada's Capilano University, the administration confiscates a professor's work caricaturing the president on the grounds that it constitutes "harassment."

Community College of Philadelphia trustees hire president despite faculty concerns

Should serving as the provost of a school that closed amid state investigations disqualify one to lead a community college?

 

Alabama university limits president's love life

Alabama State University doesn't want its president to have live-in lovers -- and has banned it in writing.

Groups call for big changes in recruitment and training of community college presidents

With a wave of retirements looming, community college leadership pipeline needs urgent repairs, report finds.

AAUP recommends more communication between faculty and governing boards

In light of several recent, high-profile cases of poor communication between faculty and governing boards, AAUP advocates for regular interaction between the two groups and more shared governance.

A key reason behind presidential resignations involves shared governance (opinion)

Campus Leadership

Over the last few years, a startling number of college and university presidents have suddenly lost their jobs. The trustees and faculty members at Pennsylvania State University, Michigan State University and, most recently, the University of Southern California have all seen their presidents resign. Other campuses have also experienced similar eruptions.

A handful of well-publicized downfalls by college and university presidents doesn’t necessarily suggest all of academe is in similar danger. After all, with more than 4,600 degree-granting postsecondary institutions in the United States, trends rarely apply to every sector. Still, the resignations suggest something different from the norm is at work in academe.

So what went wrong at those institutions? Conjectures abound, but many of them don’t hold up to scrutiny. Here are four often-blamed factors that don’t cause the downfall of university presidencies:

The structure of the board. After every resignation, recommendations for reform have focused on reshaping the Board of Trustees. At Michigan State, for example, the board was said to be too small and insular; at USC, too large and opaque. At Penn State, the board was accused of being asleep at the wheel. Looked at as a whole, no discernible pattern emerges -- a clear sign that a structural flaw in the academic system did not cause the problems.

Conflicts among the faculty, board and administration. At some colleges and universities, the governing groups have contentious relationships. New board members might want to oust a president to pursue a different path for the institution. Faculty members might distrust the president and come across as being out for blood. Such was not the case, however, in any of the recent governance controversies. Indeed, a claim could be made that the opposite was true: faculty members were largely compliant, raising no warning flags about their leaders. And the boards either had no idea of the problems that existed or simply thought the president was doing a great job.

Problematic presidential personalities. Penn State’s president was often lauded as a model to emulate. Lou Anna Simon received plaudits for her leadership at Michigan State. USC’s Board of Trustees gave its president a $1.5 million bonus a year before firing him. How is it possible that a leader can be popular and supported by their boards and the faculty one day yet then relieved of duty the next?

Presidential abuse. In all recent cases, the presidents were peripheral to the controversies rocking their institutions. At Michigan State, a trainer committed a series of crimes. At Penn State, a former football coach was the guilty party. At USC, a medical school dean, and then a gynecologist, were the individuals at the center of the storm.

What, then, are we to make of this string of presidential resignations? Distinct issues in each of these institutions’ cultures played important roles, but a key common problem has to do with a lack of shared governance.

Colleges and universities are interpretive communities where individuals make sense of actions and policies through a shared discourse that gets enacted by way of governance. Shared governance, however, on each of these campuses, was weak. Boards of trustees and faculty members ceded far too much power to administrators to make decisions.

Many institutions see a clear benefit to consolidating power: speed. A continual drumbeat in academe has been that higher education is plagued by slow decision making -- a lethargy that could doom academic institutions in an age defined by the speed of social media. Faculty members are said to prevent institutions from acting nimbly; if college presidents had more leeway, colleges could achieve more, more quickly, goes the argument.

Such arguments have been winning out. The result is that boards and faculties have largely ceded their roles in shared governance to the president and the administrative minions -- with disastrous consequences. The lack of shared responsibility can be seen in each of the institutions that lost their presidents.

The way forward has to be an acknowledgment that “shared” governance suggests that faculty members are active decision makers. Faculty members will see issues differently from administrators or the board -- and that is not a bad thing. Different perspectives enable creative conflict to occur, and out of that comes more informed decision making and more involvement from all constituencies.

Shared decision making takes time, but it need not be interminable. Some decisions require a rapid response, but what is really needed for the vast majority of issues is agreement on an agenda and time frame. Faculty members tend to focus on processes; administrators like to make decisions. What we need going forward is active faculty and board engagement with issues and policies in deliberative forums that make decisions rather than just debate them.

Colleges and universities certainly need to acknowledge a more competitive academic environment framed by digital technologies that require faster response times than in the past. But to ignore the failures of governance is to welcome further problems in other institutions, and ultimately, threaten the excellence that has defined higher education.

William G. Tierney is University Professor and Wilbur-Kieffer Professor of Higher Education in the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education and the co-director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education.

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Former Michigan State president Lou Anna Simon
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Why presidents have such short tenures (opinion)

Campus Leadership

Announcing recently that he plans to retire in 2019 after eight years at the helm, the president of a flagship research university observed that had he already served longer than the median tenure for CEOs of similar institutions.

Indeed, reports from the American Council on Education and other presidential associations confirm that the median tenure of presidents at four-year institutions is declining. Many factors account for this trend. It is reasonable to assume that the rising number of extremely short tenures is lowering the median.

In the past two years, I have researched the profiles of 34 presidents who served for three years or less between initial appointment and resignation or termination. One member of this group resigned following a felony indictment, another perished in a car accident and three resigned due to unexpected health crises. The remaining 29 presidents resigned for job-related reasons -- sometimes voluntarily, sometimes under pressure from system heads and trustees or from internal constituencies.

Combining research from available public sources, analysis of press coverage and personal interviews, I tried to understand why and how such early resignations occurred. And I looked for patterns of decision making by the presidential appointees and the recruiting institutions.

Available documentation and personal recollections suggest that the very short tenures cannot be attributed to flawed search processes. Nearly all institutions that experienced early resignations or terminations had followed standard procedures in their quest for new CEOs: the appointment of sizable search committees, co-chaired by trustees and campus leaders; leisurely search timetables, typically six to 18 months; and the engagement of executive search firms.

Two words, however, kept coming up both in the written sources and in interviews: “mismatch” and “misalignment.” Two words, but perhaps only one concept. Resignations or terminations came about when one or both of the parties to the presidential contract concluded that they had different ideas about the job itself and/or different goals for the institution.

Three Examples Examined

Under any circumstances, short presidential tenures are highly disruptive and very expensive. Trustees and campus leaders cannot shield their institutions from unpredictable accidents or health crises. But they can and should look out for potential causes of “mismatch” or “misalignment.” The following three examples illustrate how these problems occurred and what the recruiting institutions might do to avoid them in the future.

At all three institutions, the chosen candidates served for less than two years from initial appointment. The early resignations did not occur in the context of major controversies or scandals. All three searches were conducted in compliance with applicable laws and academic customs. The preferred candidates fit the lengthy briefs prepared by the search consultants in collaboration with representative committees. Why, then, were their presidential tenures short-lived?

At one institution, a small, selective liberal arts college, search committee and trustees embraced an able and very loyal “member of the [college] family.” Able and loyal he was. But was he ready to implement drastic cuts in the operating budget? Was he ready to grapple with the nearly 50 percent tuition discount rate that had sustained the college through many years of flat enrollments? Were the preferred candidate and his wife ready to put down roots in a community quite different from the one where they had lived for more than a decade?

At a second institution, a large public research university, the search committee recommended the appointment of a candidate who could advance the university’s standing among its peers. Strongly qualified for this assignment he was. But did he understand the complexities of a campus and a system with competing centers of power and layers of bureaucracy? Did he know enough about the legendary political complexities of the state in which he was invited to live and work?

A third example of early exit occurred at a midsize, respected technological university. The institution was stable and financially sound. But its aging faculty showed little interest in updating the science curricula developed in the 1980s and 1990s and even less interest in cross-disciplinary teaching and research. The trustees understood that their university slowly but surely was losing its competitive edge. The new appointee had impressive research credentials and had managed scientific institutes and laboratories. But did she appreciate the difference between setting new expectations for a traditional, somewhat skeptical, faculty and supervising teams of untenured, mostly junior scientists and technical personnel?

Other individual and institutional profiles I analyzed presented variations on this theme. Sound search processes, extensive and professionally prepared briefs, highly qualified candidates … and very short tenures.

The common thread in most of the profiles I reconstructed? From start to finish, participants in the search process focused intensely on the candidates’ personal attributes, less so on relevant work experience, and least intensely on the specific challenges that awaited the most skilled and personable candidates in the pool. Search consultants and search committees produced the results they were charged with producing: legally and academically sound processes and qualified candidates who fit the institutional briefs. “Mismatches” and “misalignments” occurred at the next stage in the search process, when the decision makers -- trustees and system heads -- paid too little attention to the onboarding of their appointees.

In a general sense, the new CEOs were well qualified for presidential responsibilities. But they were not well prepared to understand the distinct cultural and political environments and to tackle the specific academic and financial challenges of the institution.

Professional associations that serve college and university trustees have been aware for some time that higher education needs more effective onboarding practices. Models are available not only in the corporate world but also among major foundations, nonprofit hospitals and so forth. We in higher education need to revisit this issue and the applicable models.

Some system chancellors and trustees acknowledge the high cost of overlooking the importance of onboarding practices. Presidents who have recovered from painful experiences, or who are now retired, are also willing to share what they learned. Let us take advantage of these resources and thus reduce the probability of future “mismatches” and “misalignments.”

Clara M. Lovett is president emerita of Northern Arizona University.

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