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If a university president skipped out on last year's and this year’s meetings of the Association of American Universities, she might be forgiven for thinking she was in the wrong room when she showed back up at the association’s meeting next year.

Between last year and this year, 16 of the association’s 61 universities have hired or will hire new presidents or chancellors, a dramatic shift in the leadership of the country’s upper echelon of research universities. And the turnover isn’t confined to the AAU -- the entire research university sector has seen significant turnover in recent years.

Already this year, seven flagship public research universities have announced searches for a new president or chancellor, as have three Ivy League institutions and Carnegie Mellon, another elite private university. That turnover follows more than 15 research university searches last year.

2012-13 Searches

Public Doctoral Universities

  • Louisiana State University
  • Pennsylvania State University
  • University of California, Berkeley
  • University of Florida
  • The University of Georgia
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • University of Wisconsin at Madison

Public Systems

  • California State University system
  • Louisiana State University system

Private Doctoral Universities

  • Carnegie Mellon University
  • Dartmouth College
  • Princeton University
  • Yale University

The raft of openings comes at a demanding time for higher education leaders, particularly those in the public sector. New presidents will confront increased accountability, decreased state appropriations, increased market and political pressure to control the growth of tuition prices, and questions about the role of athletics in higher education. Several reports issued in the past year, including one released last week by the National Science Board, caution that without greater public investment, public institutions will fall further behind their private peers.  

Executive search consultants say these challenges, paired with the fact that the sheer number of openings will likely outnumber individuals traditionally considered for these jobs – those with strong academic credentials and significant academic administrative experience – will affect how universities search, with the probable result being more unconventional picks.

“Because demand exceeds the supply of traditional candidates, we see search committees rethinking what is ‘acceptable’ and what is best for their own institutions,” said Jan Greenwood, an executive search consultant with the form Greenwood/Asher & Associates who worked with the University of Arizona last year and is working with the University of Florida this year.

A Tough Job

Several higher-education observers note that the accelerated and widespread turnover is not coincidence. Presidents face increased scrutiny and must deal with new pressures that can be exhausting.

“Outside of a handful of wealthy, privately endowed universities, I think a lot of presidents just find that the jobs aren’t that satisfying anymore,” said James C. Garland, former president of Miami University of Ohio and author of Saving Alma Mater. “A lot of these people went into administration hoping to build something, and instead they are desperately trying to stay afloat.”

According to a survey of college and university presidents conducted by the American Council on Education in 2011, the average tenure of presidents decreased from 8.5 years to 7 years between 2006 and 2011. If one considers the top 100 research universities and an average tenure of seven years, that would equal an average of about 14 searches each year. Of course many of the open positions this year are the kinds of jobs that historically have been considered career peaks -- jobs in which people might have hoped to stay a decade or more and then retire.

In a speech last week at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, AAU President Hunter Rawlings pointed to increased pressures on public university presidents, including state politics, budget troubles, and athletics, that are undermining the focus on academics and driving much of the turnover.

Others say the increased scrutiny is just a factor of the changing role of higher education in American society. “What we’ve done successfully over the past few years is convince the wider society that higher education is important to the future of the country," said Kevin P. Reilly, president of the University of Wisconsin System, which is searching for a chancellor for its flagship Madison campus this year. "Some people say about war that war’s too important to leave to the generals. Likewise we’ve convinced people that higher education is too important to leave to the academics.”

Several recent public university presidents have departed after clashing with state lawmakers or governing boards over funding and institutional independence. Carolyn A. (Biddy) Martin’s tenure at the University of Wisconsin at Madison lasted only three years – the last of which was spent butting heads with the rest of the system – before she took over leadership of Amherst College. Richard Lariviere only lasted two at the University of Oregon, clashing with the state’s governing board about freedom for the university.

Other departures were driven by problems within the institution. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp recently announced that he would step down at the at the end of the year, his fifth on the job. He spent the past two years tackling scandals stemming from the athletics program but touching on academics and the administration, and the criticism that came with it.

Scandal also forced the firing of Pennsylvania State University President Graham Spanier, who had been president at the institution since 1995.

That’s not to say all recent departures are the result of exhaustion or scandal. Several presidents stepping down this year are doing so on their own volition after leading through many of the challenges that exhausted their peers. Robert Birgeneau and Bernie Machen, leaders at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Florida, respectively, each served eight years through the financial crisis, significant reductions in appropriations, and increased calls for accountability. Birgeneau has said he stayed in the role longer than anticipated to stabilize the institution in the face of these challenges.

2011-12 Searches

Public Doctoral Universities

  • Iowa State University
  • Purdue University
  • Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey
  • State University of New York at Albany
  • The University of Arizona
  • The University of California, San Diego
  • The University of Hawaii at Manoa
  • The University of Massachusetts  Amherst
  • The University of Nevada, Reno
  • The University of New Mexico
  • The University of Oregon
  • The University of Utah
  • The University of Vermont

Public Systems

  • Texas A&M University System

Private Doctoral Universities

  • Brown University
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Other leaders, such as Shirley Tilghman at Princeton, Richard C. Levin at Yale, and Michael F. Adams at the University of Georgia, are stepping down after long tenures.

The ‘Traditional’ Candidate

Greenwood said that, by nature, colleges and universities don’t like to take risks when they make leadership selections, so they look to candidates who have the types of experiences that will lead to the least risk.

Greenwood defined the “traditional” candidate as someone with a strong academic record, including a full professorship, funded research, and potentially membership in the national academies; someone with success in academic administration; someone with demonstrated fund-raising prowess; and someone with experience tackling wicked problems – those with nebulous solutions. Ideal candidates should also understand how to govern in an environment with dispersed decision-making authority, where open criticism is encouraged, and where transparency is valued.

Those qualifications generally point to someone who is or has been a provost at a comparable institution. According to the ACE survey, 60 percent of presidents at doctoral-granting universities were chief academic officers (provosts) immediately prior to becoming president, a higher percentage than at any other institution type. Another 21 percent were presidents at other institutions.

The problem confronting search committees is that there aren’t too many of those people out there, and recent studies suggest that many of those people might not be interested in the presidency. A separate survey by ACE released in 2010 found that only 30 percent of provosts aspired to be presidents.

As a result, colleges and universities have to look to candidates outside that model, such as CEOs. But they hedge by looking for higher payoff. "If the risk is higher to the search committee, they expect the reward part of the equation to be higher,” Greenwood said. Colleges might select less proven candidates with a hope that they will be up to the job and also stay at the helm longer. Or they might choose an individual from outside the academy, but someone who has shown fund-raising prowess or strong connections to state lawmakers.

Basic Economics

The increased demand and limited supply of talent had ramifications for the search market last year, said search consultants and individuals who sat on committees.

Seven AAU institutions searched for new leaders, and they were joined by other flagship and land-grant public research universities such as the University of Vermont, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Administrators at several of those universities stressed the importance of starting early and the value of hiring a search firm. “We got the earliest start from any of the schools we looked at, and that was an intentional thing,” said Jack Fortner, president of the University of New Mexico Board of Regents. Finalists for that search included several sitting provosts and former presidents, and the board ultimately went with Robert Frank, provost at Kent State University.

Cameron Martin, an associate commissioner of higher education in Utah, who has worked with several search committees, said the University of Utah's committee sought out a consultant who could bring a wider array of candidates. “Because it’s a tight labor market, we wanted to make sure we tapped into a network that could bring qualified candidates to the table,” he said. The Utah search ended up selecting the university’s provost, David Pershing.

The candidate pools for several searches overlapped last year. Kumble R. Subbaswamy, who then was provost at the University of Kentucky, was named a finalist in three searches before being named president at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

The majority of president searches last year ended up selecting sitting provosts or other major academic officers – “traditional” candidates. In addition to Frank, Pershing, and Subbaswamy, the new presidents of the University of Oregon, the University of Hawaii and several other institutions were provosts immediately before their selections.

But several institutions last year went outside that paradigm. Purdue University selected Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels (a move that was met with some resistance). Temple University selected Neil D. Theobald, senior vice president and chief financial officer of Indiana University. And the University of California at San Diego selected Pradeep K. Khosla, dean of Carnegie Mellon’s engineering school.

Mike Baer, a search consultant with Isaacson, Miller, who worked with the State University of New York at Albany on its search last year, said the lack of “traditionally qualified” candidates isn’t as dramatic a crisis as it might seem. “Instead of just provosts, you have to consider deans and other roles,” he said. “There are some really highly qualified people available to move into these positions.” In recent years, consultants have pushed chief financial officer to consider the presidency as a career step. Albany ended up appointing Robert J. Jones, senior vice president for academic administration at the University of Minnesota System.

This Year

The presidencies open this year all come with distinct sets of challenges. Whoever steps into the UC-Berkeley chancellorship will have to strive to maintain that university’s academic prestige amid significant decreases in state appropriations.

The next president of Penn State will likely have to re-establish the university’s reputation while overseeing the rebuilding of the football program. Wisconsin's next chancellor will have to reconcile the university's academic ambition with the needs of the state and the rest of the system. Both appointees will benefit from interim presidents who have generally received praise for managing difficult situations.

"One of the great things for us is that we've had [UW-Madison Interim Chancellor] David Ward step in there last year and this year," Reilly said. "He has provided a nice platform for someone to come in and really move things forward."

Reilly said the increased pressures on the job mean certain qualities will be emphasized in search for the next generation leadership. "You need someone who is comfortable in the spotlight, who's able to work with colleagues to lead and manage," he said. "Public relations is part of that. It just comes with the territory, and anyone around these jobs recognizes that. It's not a job for the faint of heart or the introvert."

Baer and Greenwood said it is likely that most institutions will attract a distinct set of qualified candidates, and that there’s not really a set pool of talent that universities will pull from. A university with a health care component presents a different set of challenges than one that does not. The size of the research enterprise, land-grant status, and athletic expectations will all likely influence the types of candidates a university will attract.

Several observers said the fact that there are four prestigious private university presidencies open might complicate the public universities' searches. “People just don’t want the headaches that come with being at a public university,” Garland said. “If you have the qualifications to be a major research university president, I think you’re going to want to settle on private sector initially.”

Public university provosts have a steep hill to climb if they want to land a job at an elite private university. The majority of elite private university presidents were previously at other private universities. While the California Institute of Technology recently hired the provost of the Georgia Institute of Technology, the public university administrators hired by elite private institutions in recent years, such as Columbia’s Lee Bollinger and Cornell’s David Skorton, tended to be sitting presidents.

This past year, MIT chose its own provost last year. Brown picked the dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School.

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