When a Campus Leader Dies

Accidental deaths of 2 college presidents raise issues of communication, management and succession.
August 15, 2006

It has become a higher education cliché: the late-night phone call in which the college president learns of a student death or other tragedy. The call sets in motion a process in which the president and other administrators inform and calm the campus, help students and staff grieve, and help employees and others look to the future.

But who answers the phone when the call is about the death of the president? Who takes charge of what happens next on the campus? And how is a campus changed when its leader, its administrative and often emotional core, is suddenly gone?

Those are among the questions that college officials and experts on campus leadership wrestled with as they sought to make sense of the latest in an unusual string of sudden deaths of college and university presidents. On Sunday, Kermit L. Hall, president of the State University of New York at Albany and a force on the national higher education scene, died in a swimming accident in the ocean off Hilton Head, S.C., where he and his wife were vacationing. His death follows by less than two weeks another accidental death, in which Mike Davis, president of Pueblo Community College, was killed when his private plane crashed. In late June, another college chief executive, Denice D. Denton, president of the University of California at Santa Cruz, killed herself.

Presidencies end for lots of reasons, and in varying ways. Some chief executives retire after decades, often amid praise and celebration; some are chased out amid significant unhappiness or scandal; others just burn out or fade away. Any time a president leaves his or her job in a hurry, be it for illness or amid controversy, it is essential that the college's officials try to manage the situation carefully and thoughtfully to send a signal to students, staff and supporters that "the institution is watching and caring," said M. Fredric Volkmann, vice chancellor for public affairs at Washington University in St. Louis.

He agreed with Claire Van Ummersen, vice president of the American Council on Education's Center for Effective Leadership, that the extra layer of "emotionality" that can follow a president's death can make campus reaction less predictable, and an effective response even more crucial.

Monday, as faculty, staff members and students absorbed news of Hall's death just 18 months into his presidency and praise poured in for the esteemed constitutional scholar and national higher education leader, officials at Albany worked feverishly behind the scenes both to remember and honor the president and to take initial, assured steps to move the institution forward.

They planned and held a "remembrance" for Hall Monday afternoon on the campus's main quad -- a "giant group hug," as Susan V. Herbst, the provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, put it -- and officials from the State University of New York system moved quickly to appoint an interim successor to Hall, a former president at Utah State University and administrator at North Carolina State, Ohio State and several other universities. More than 1,000 people attended Monday's campus ceremony.

Photo: SUNY-Albany

Kermit L. Hall


Also Monday, Chancellor John R. Ryan put Herbst in charge of the Albany campus for the time being, and scheduled a series of meetings with senior administrators and academic officials over the next few days to "ensure that the positive momentum established under President Hall's leadership continues," said a SUNY spokesman, David Henahan.

Herbst and other top administrators have been in a whirlwind of activity since late afternoon Sunday, when they first got word that Hall had died after being pulled from the water by fellow beachgoers. As the vice presidents and other members of the university's executive committee gathered in a conference room, Vince Delio, the chief of staff, told his colleagues they should try to "turn off all human emotion for a few hours" to deal with matters big and small, Herbst said.

They wrote a statement to tell the campus about Hall's death and called deans, professors, presidents of other local colleges and universities, college association leaders and key alumni. They began planning Monday's memorial and took steps to find professors who might step in to teach the freshman honors seminar Hall was scheduled to teach this fall. And they set in motion a change in the name of the scholarship fund that Hall chose to create with the funds that the university might have spent on his inauguration as president, a ceremony he decided to forgo. The scholarship will now be a memorial to him; his wife, Phyllis, asked that contributions in his honor be made to the fund.

"We're trying to get everybody to focus on what really mattered to Kermit -- that's the course we have to stay," said Herbst. "We spent a lot of time here focusing on the big research issues in our region, but he always brought things back to students. So for people who are shaky around here today, and there are a lot of them, we've asked them to focus on what he would have wanted: making this a better place for our students."

'Your Rudder, Your Leader'

Officials at Pueblo Community College use very similar language in describing how they have responded to Davis's death this month after five years as president there. Gary Franchi, a spokesman for the two-year public college, said that on the Thursday afternoon that campus officials first heard that Davis's plane had disappeared, they gathered in the president's conference room to begin their planning. By that evening, when the official word came that the president had died, they set in motion a phone tree so that "all key constituents were called, so there wouldn't be any surprises by people reading it in the paper," and prepared a statement for local reporters.

Photo: Pueblo CC

Mike Davis


The following morning, August 4, the Colorado Community College System appointed Marjorie Villani, Pueblo's interim executive vice president who was on the verge of being given that job on a permanent basis, as interim president. A memorial service on the campus followed on Monday, and Villani and another campus official then traveled to Vincennes University, in Indiana, to participate in memorial services there, where Davis had spent many years as an administrator.

In the days since, Franchi said that Pueblo officials have focused their energy on continuing the aggressive enrollment drive that Davis had promoted as president. "The fact that we are so busy, that we're in gear and this is the time of year when it's like a runaway locomotive, may have taken some of the difficulty out of this," Franchi said. "There are all these things that Mike Davis would have wanted us to do, and while it's tough without your rudder, your leader, at least you have the track that you're on."

That intense sense of purpose may get Pueblo employees through the next few weeks, Franchi said. But he wouldn't be surprised, he said, that when classes start again in a couple of weeks, "and we get into the routine, it might be harder then -- it might hit us a second time."

Mitchell Marks, an organizational psychologist who just joined the faculty at San Francisco State University after many years as a consultant, said that college officials should assume that employees will go through stages of grief if a president leaves suddenly, and especially if he or she dies.

Some workers will take advantage of public events like memorial services to let their mourning show. But "some segment of the employee population turns inward during a crisis, and isn't comfortable sharing feelings at work, either because they don't think it's appropriate or they don't want to show any sign of weakness," Marks said. So administrators, department chairs and other supervisors should engage in informal "management by walking around," he said, because "research shows that it is people's immediate supervisors who really are most powerful in conveying a message that grieving is okay."

But while that kind of heavy lifting may happen at the individual, granular level, much of the campus's public reaction will come from whoever is chosen to succeed the fallen president, says Van Ummersen of the American Council on Education.

"I tend to think of presidents as priests on one side and warriors on the other, and normally when the campus is in crisis, it is the priest side of the president who understands what the community is going through," she said.

But when a president dies, "there isn't the ability to have that person as a strong individual stand up and help the campus reach closure," Van Ummersen said. At a public university, that may become the responsibility of a chancellor or other official at a state system, but is more likely to fall to the person chosen as the president's interim successor who, like an understudy stepping in for an ailing actor or a backup ball player filling in for an injured starter, may get an opportunity to lead in a way he or she never would have wanted.

"For better or worse, this is an opportunity for someone to show what he or she can do," said Van Ummersen. "I've known people who have served as interim presidents in difficult situations who the board decided were doing such a good job that they got the job permanently."

One such person, Sharon Latchaw Hirsh, was appointed president of Rosemont College in March, after rising to the position under circumstances not unlike those at Albany and Pueblo Community College. Early last December, Ann M. Amore, president of the Roman Catholic college in Pennsylvania, was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Six days later, the college granted her a medical leave of absence, and less than a week after that, stunningly, Amore was dead.

Hirsh, a Rosemont alumna who was a longtime professor of art history at Dickinson College, was on Rosemont's Board of Trustees and headed its academic affairs committee when Amore fell ill. Her colleagues appointed her as acting president while Amore was alive, and interim president when she died, said Christyn Moran Newman, the college's vice president for marketing and public relations.

Because of the clarity and confidence of the board's communication with staff members, students and alumni and the smoothness of the transition, there was "no period when people felt they didn't know what was going on," said Newman. And Hirsh, she said, struck trustees and faculty members alike as the perfect person to "carry on Ann Amore's legacy to the college."

Newman warned her counterparts at other campuses that have lost presidents not to expect a quick recovery: "I still feel the impact of her death, in emotional and non-emotional ways," she said of Amore. And while she wouldn't wish such an event on any college or university, "it does bring your community together in a way that no other experience could," Newman said.

"When I look at my e-mail from that period, it is amazing we were still getting our work done," she added. "But we did. We'd all say to ourselves, 'That's what Ann would want us to do.' "


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