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As presidential tenures continue to shorten and many presidents are considering leaving their posts, there are still those who defy the trends—those who dedicate much, if not all, of their career to a single institution and count their tenure in decades. Among such long-serving leaders are some of the most effective and transformational presidents in higher education, and what they know is that it’s not enough to point to the tremendous impact they’ve had on their institutions. They must also guard against the more rarely considered challenges that come with decades of service—namely, how the institution responds to them while they’re in the position and what happens to the institution once they step down.
The first set of challenges for long-serving leaders can crop up during their time at the helm. Although plenty of presidents keep their attention exactly where it needs to be, there is a risk of losing track of the purpose of their role: serving the institution and its most important constituency, the students. As a president’s tenure lengthens, this focus can sometimes shift away from institutional needs and toward personal legacy. Leaders may inadvertently turn their attention—and the attention of those around them—to their longevity and reputation instead of the well-being of the institution they serve.
That pivot can be reflected in the way long-serving leaders build their teams. Certainly, presidents should surround themselves with an excellent team of their choosing to support them as they lead the institution. However, despite best intentions, sometimes the team focus shifts from serving the institution to instead serving the leader, which can lead to numerous problems.
When a team remains focused on institutional priorities, they help to hold leadership accountable. When a team instead prioritizes serving the president, staff may become reluctant to offer tough love, to innovate and take risks, to be the bearers of unpleasant news or realities. A team eager to please and bolster a leader may do so at the expense of what’s best for the institution.
A dominant presidential persona can unintentionally overshadow an institution as well and create implications for brand management. With long-serving, transformational leaders especially, it can be difficult to separate the two, not only for faculty, staff and students but also for external audiences. That makes telling institutional stories and highlighting other great institutional leaders and spokespeople even more challenging.
A long presidential term can also lull a board and a campus community into a false sense of permanence. When it feels as if a president has always been there, people can have an optimistic, if misguided, tendency to think they always will be. As such, there isn’t always a pointed focus on building a bench or engaging in succession planning, as there should be, because the presidency is perceived as unchanging.
Eventually, all presidencies do come to an end, however, which brings an additional set of challenges for a college or university. The departure of a long-serving leader can be a shock and spark a kind of identity crisis for the institution. In every presidency, often the brand and identity of the leader become entwined with that of the institution; with exceptionally long tenures, it can feel nearly impossible to distinguish the two. The face of the institution is the leader, and a void is left in their stead.
As institutions grapple with their identity after the president departs, the next steps can become very challenging. On the heels of a long-serving leader, many struggle with how to select and welcome a new leader. Who could possibly come next?
Even without the pressures of living up to an extraordinary predecessor, it’s a big role to step into. An incoming president is tasked with bringing an objective eye to the role and leading the institution forward. But to do so, they need to unwind systems, processes and the unspoken culture built around the previous president. Viable candidates may avoid being a “palate cleanser” or may not feel confident enough to follow a long-serving, transformational leader. Some institutions may seek the polar opposite of their departing president in order to satisfy a constituent desire for change, only to soon find they’ve overreached and the new president is indeed too different to be successful in a culture that still reflects the influence of the long-serving leader.
For such storied presidents, there are ways to stave off the challenges that accompany their longevity in the role. The leader and their board must be intentional to ensure they all remain focused on the institution, its mission and its people. The very natural, very human instinct to serve a leader must be questioned at every turn, and the president must build a team willing to offer gut checks and push back when necessary.
And as contrary as it may seem, the end should be discussed at the beginning. The president and the board should have conversations early on to discuss, even if just hypothetically, expectations for how long the person will serve and the number of contracts that may be issued. In addition, the board and the president must work together to engage in intentional succession planning to ensure some preparedness as a balm to the eventual sting of departure.
When a president holds their position for decades, it can have very real institutional advantages. Plenty of long-serving leaders made their colleges or universities what they are today; without them, those institutions would unquestionably be entirely different places. Consider, for example, Father Ted Hesburgh and the University of Notre Dame (35 years), Diana Natalicio and the University of Texas at El Paso (31 years), or Freeman A. Hrabowski III and the University of Maryland Baltimore County (30 years). Higher education faces myriad challenges, and people with many years in the role can bring consistency, experience and a steady vision to navigate the tumultuous times. But that kind of long-term leadership can have some very real downsides, too, without careful consideration of its institutional impact.