Moving On

College presidents are still leaving for other universities amid tough economic times, but some concede that they wrestled with whether doing so was appropriate.

May 20, 2009

As one of the most difficult economic crises in modern memory grips the nation, a number of college presidents have announced plans to move on to positions at other institutions. That’s raised new challenges for college leaders, eager to avoid the appearance of walking out of a difficult situation, while at the same time seizing career opportunities as they emerge.

G.P. (Bud) Peterson, who became president of Georgia Institute of Technology in April, says he wrestled with leaving the University of Colorado at Boulder during an economic downturn. But given the fact that financial struggles exist across the spectrum of higher education, Peterson says he could hardly be accused of ducking a challenge.

“It wasn’t like I was bailing on Colorado so I could come to a great financial situation here,” Peterson said.

Had Boulder been struggling with a unique issue, like the firing of the controversial professor Ward Churchill, Peterson says he might not have left.

“If this had been a situation where we were in the middle of a football scandal … or the issues surrounding Ward Churchill, that would have been very different,” he said. “Those were unique to Colorado. I would have been concerned that I was running out on the [university].”

Peterson's hesitation reflects a traditional notion in higher education, where presidents were presumed to stay put -- unless asked by their boards to do otherwise -- during a severe crisis or a major initiative like a capital campaign. The serial presidency has grown increasingly common, however, and leaving amidst challenges has become more common as well.

While Peterson has no regrets about his move, he concedes that he’d initially thought his tenure at Boulder would last longer than three years. Uriel Nauenberg, chairman of the Boulder Faculty Assembly, said faculty respected Peterson’s decision, even though his departure was rather abrupt.

“We would have preferred if he had been around for much longer,” he said. “On the other hand, as I said, these opportunities don’t come all the time so we understand him having to make that decision.”

Phil DiStefano, who served as provost under Peterson, was quickly named chancellor at Boulder after an internal search.

Dennis Barden, managing partner of higher education for Witt/Kieffer executive search firm, says he’s seen plenty of presidents taking new positions in recent months.

“I think they are torn [about leaving], but I don’t see any diminishment in the number of presidencies that are turning over right now,” said Barden, who assists universities in presidential searches.

While presidents are still climbing the career ladder as normal, the economic crunch may change how they approach their last weeks and months in office, Barden added.

“I’ve seen a lot of what I would call taking the bullet,” he said. “A president who is on the way out will get some of that dirty work done so his or her successor will not get stuck with that battle.”

Rebecca Chopp, who announced in February that she would leave Colgate University to become president of Swarthmore College, has participated in a number of difficult decisions in recent months. Like those of many other colleges, Colgate’s endowment has taken a hit, dropping by 22 percent in 2008. Those losses, and expected constraints on other revenue sources like tuition, have prompted hiring freezes for staff positions and restrictions on salary increases.

Swarthmore is facing its own fiscal challenges, but Chopp says that has forced healthy conversations about priorities that have taught her more about the institution.

“I think it’s introspective,” she said. “I think people are naming their deepest values. They are talking about the nature of and the importance of the community. They are examining what’s at stake; what’s essential.”

Bruce Selleck, who co-chairs a committee that’s assessing Colgate’s fiscal situation, says it will be important for the university to shore up its finances as it begins the search for a new president.

“I think it would be a difficult time [for a search], if during the process of trying to attract a new president the college didn’t take the steps necessary to ensure long-term financial stability,” he said. “It strikes me that someone from another institution looking to come to Colgate will want to know that we’ve done the work to insure they’re not stepping into a mess.”

Oftentimes it's the job of the interim president to make some difficult choices and set the stage for a permanent chief. Such was the case at Beloit College, where Dick Niemiec, a trustee, took on the interim role and offset revenue losses by cutting the positions of about 10 percent of the college's employees.

Presidents often take flack for starting major initiatives and failing to see them through before they move on, and such criticism may be heightened in an era when money is particularly tight. Michael Rao, who has pushed for the establishment of a new medical school at Central Michigan University, recently announced that he’s taking the president’s post at Virginia Commonwealth University. Rao urged Central Michigan’s board of trustees to approve the medical school just five months ago, but says he’s left a solid foundation for the $30 million to $50 million project. Rao named a new medical school dean last month, and the outgoing president suggests the primary responsibility for ushering the project through now lies with the dean.

“I would say that there are certainly some who are disappointed [that I’m leaving now], but they treat me with so much respect here that no one has outwardly said that,” said Rao, who was 33 when he became Central Michigan’s president in 2000. “But here’s where we are: We exhausted everything my leadership could bring, and we moved on with a dean.”

Even when economic times are good, presidents risk appearing overly opportunistic if they leave in the middle of a major project or capital campaign – although doing so has become increasingly common. Barden of Witt/Kieffer says presidents have to think about long-term reputational concerns before they leave, and those concerns may be more pronounced if they leave a college amid fiscal challenges.

“Somebody's tempting those people away from the institutions before the job is done, [and] let’s face it [search firms are] part of that paradigm,” he said. “But does that come back to haunt people? I think there’s no question that it does.”


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