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A photo of an hourglass, with the dropping of sand signaling the passage of time.


American higher education has a history of successfully navigating disruptions, emerging stronger through reforms that have helped democratize access and reshape institutional priorities. However, the challenges facing academia today feel different. Issues ranging from adjunctification to declining enrollment, and from rising student debt to increasing pressures on academic freedom, demand a fresh set of solutions.

How to respond to today’s challenges has been a topic of significant debate. There is widespread discussion about how new trends in the job market and technological advances will have a transformative impact on higher education institutions. Many argue that American higher education institutions should address these challenges by thinking more creatively and innovatively about teaching and learning and engaging in “curricular transformation.”

While such arguments are critical in thinking about the future of higher education, their primary focus on the curricular aspects of the university leaves much to be desired for those seeking a holistic approach to the reformation of American higher education. Concerns about increasing tuition costs, questions about the future of tenure, and the public’s declining confidence in the value of higher education cannot be addressed solely by emphasizing how colleges should respond to changes in the job market or the rising prominence of artificial intelligence in every part of our lives. Similarly, ignoring or not paying enough attention to administrative bloat and the inequitable compensation packages that mid-level and high-level administrators receive in comparison to faculty and staff will not do anything to build support for leaders’ efforts to ensure the viability of their institutions. While the rift between the faculty and staff on one hand and administrators on the other is not new, the growing tension and near-complete distrust between these groups over the past two decades have significantly impeded any moves toward major reforms.

For true transformation to take place in higher education, there is a need to seriously consider current trends in university leadership and the ways colleges and universities choose their academic and administrative leaders and extend their contracts. In an era when we are in dire need of visionary leadership, colleges and universities seem to prioritize candidates for leadership positions who have great managerial skills. While it is reasonable to expect good leaders to possess managerial skills, higher education institutions should also prioritize strategic leadership qualities—especially for dean, provost and president positions—and look for qualities such as orientations toward collaborative thinking, long-term planning and visionary thinking.

Once in position, many administrators may resist stepping down, whether due to a desire to maintain control or socioeconomic and cultural-institutional pressures that discourage returning to faculty roles. In fact, while academics who transition into academic administration often find ample advice and research on “navigating the managerial ascent,” transitioning back to the faculty presents many challenges, and finding guidance is more difficult. As a result, administrators who should not hold their positions often remain in their roles until they are terminated or find another administrative position elsewhere.

Indeed, while the context of politics differs from higher education, some university administrators behave like career politicians, especially once they have had experience with power and authority and when they begin to overestimate the importance of their experience. Financial considerations also play a role, as returning to the faculty often means a significant pay cut and fewer benefits. This leads to administrators who conflate institutional interests with their own.

This situation has negative ramifications for administrators, institutions and higher education as a whole. The reluctance of administrators to return to faculty roles perpetuates the entrenched leadership structures that have become characteristic of the current American higher education landscape. Term limits offer a structured approach to address some of these challenges.

There is a large body of literature on the pros and cons of term limits in politics and there is still a sparse yet burgeoning literature in other fields, including in academic medicine, where they have been discussed as an approach to promoting equity and diversity in academic medical leadership. Opponents of term limits argue that, firstly, they are not needed, as ineffective officials will be voted out, and secondly, that inexperienced newcomers may lead to instability. They also suggest that the absence of term limits is helpful to the cause of individual liberty and helps prevent the potential for a lack of productivity toward the end of one’s term. Proponents, on the other hand, believe that term limits prevent complacency, encourage leaders to prioritize impactful initiatives for their constituents over personal gain, and enhance legitimacy.

In higher education, there is great value in having consistent leadership over a period of time. But the current system is marked more by abrupt transitions than by steady long-term leadership. Research suggests that the average terms for presidents have been shortening in recent years despite the fact that presidential tenures are not planned to be short in most cases. More importantly, today’s college presidents are less experienced than ever, and relatively few of them (only about 12 percent of those planning to step down within the next five years) are contemplating a return to the faculty as their next step. Meanwhile, provosts tend to stay in their roles even less time than presidents, and many deans move between universities, becoming “serial deans” (or they rise to the provost position or vice presidency at their institutions). In many cases, an abrupt end to the tenure of a president, dean or provost leaves a trail of interims, creating uncertainty for the future.

And even when academic leaders do stay in their positions for long periods of time, prolonged tenures within a single institution can lead to stagnation or resistance to change, fostering apathy among faculty and staff. Term limits that are short but structured, with a succession plan, can effectively prevent these pressing challenges by ensuring that administrators are evaluated before their terms end and properly replaced when their terms are up to maintain the institution’s vitality and relevance.

Term limits also promote fresh perspectives and innovative approaches, crucial for adapting to evolving educational needs and trends. Many administrators spend little or no time teaching and conducting research in their own fields, and are disconnected from the realities of the classroom and research activities or artistic and creative work. While reading about trends in higher education and attending workshops and conferences are helpful, these are not a substitute for the benefits of being immersed in teaching and learning within the institution’s context.

By preventing long-term incumbency, term limits can also create openings for individuals from different groups of faculty and staff to have a chance at leadership positions, thereby promoting diversity and inclusivity. Knowing leaders are term-limited, institutions may be more motivated to focus on professional development and continuous improvement at all levels, which can benefit the institution by fostering productivity and accountability. This will also ensure that faculty and staff are regularly evaluated for their contributions, not just for tenure and promotion, but also for leadership positions.

Finally, term limits can encourage institutions to develop and implement robust succession plans, ensuring a smooth transition of leadership when a current leader’s term ends. Serving as a university administrator is demanding, and term limits can help protect against burnout by providing leaders with a clear endpoint and the opportunity to transition back to faculty or pursue other opportunities. More importantly, by establishing clear norms and expectations for leadership turnover, term limits help eliminate the abuse of power, prevent rude and antagonistic behavior toward colleagues, depersonalize transitions, and ensure that leaving the office is not a sign of weakness or any wrongdoing. Smooth leadership transitions mitigate potential conflicts, allowing colleges and universities to adapt more effectively to changing circumstances.

Certainly, implementing term limits for university administrators will not put an end to our problems. However, any system that allows one group of individuals to amass so much power and financial gain at the expense of others needs a corrective. In addition to the benefits mentioned above, term limits will likely lead to more collaboration and transparency in decision-making, which, in turn, will increase the level of trust, and trust fuels faculty and staff engagement. At a time when the “great resignation” and “quiet quitting” are hitting higher education, we must find ways to bring “the people back in” to determine areas in need of rethinking, re-envisioning, and further development.

Binnur Ozkececi-Taner is a professor of political science at Hamline University.

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