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Announcing recently that he plans to retire in 2019 after eight years at the helm, the president of a flagship research university observed that had he already served longer than the median tenure for CEOs of similar institutions.

Indeed, reports from the American Council on Education and other presidential associations confirm that the median tenure of presidents at four-year institutions is declining. Many factors account for this trend. It is reasonable to assume that the rising number of extremely short tenures is lowering the median.

In the past two years, I have researched the profiles of 34 presidents who served for three years or less between initial appointment and resignation or termination. One member of this group resigned following a felony indictment, another perished in a car accident and three resigned due to unexpected health crises. The remaining 29 presidents resigned for job-related reasons -- sometimes voluntarily, sometimes under pressure from system heads and trustees or from internal constituencies.

Combining research from available public sources, analysis of press coverage and personal interviews, I tried to understand why and how such early resignations occurred. And I looked for patterns of decision making by the presidential appointees and the recruiting institutions.

Available documentation and personal recollections suggest that the very short tenures cannot be attributed to flawed search processes. Nearly all institutions that experienced early resignations or terminations had followed standard procedures in their quest for new CEOs: the appointment of sizable search committees, co-chaired by trustees and campus leaders; leisurely search timetables, typically six to 18 months; and the engagement of executive search firms.

Two words, however, kept coming up both in the written sources and in interviews: “mismatch” and “misalignment.” Two words, but perhaps only one concept. Resignations or terminations came about when one or both of the parties to the presidential contract concluded that they had different ideas about the job itself and/or different goals for the institution.

Three Examples Examined

Under any circumstances, short presidential tenures are highly disruptive and very expensive. Trustees and campus leaders cannot shield their institutions from unpredictable accidents or health crises. But they can and should look out for potential causes of “mismatch” or “misalignment.” The following three examples illustrate how these problems occurred and what the recruiting institutions might do to avoid them in the future.

At all three institutions, the chosen candidates served for less than two years from initial appointment. The early resignations did not occur in the context of major controversies or scandals. All three searches were conducted in compliance with applicable laws and academic customs. The preferred candidates fit the lengthy briefs prepared by the search consultants in collaboration with representative committees. Why, then, were their presidential tenures short-lived?

At one institution, a small, selective liberal arts college, search committee and trustees embraced an able and very loyal “member of the [college] family.” Able and loyal he was. But was he ready to implement drastic cuts in the operating budget? Was he ready to grapple with the nearly 50 percent tuition discount rate that had sustained the college through many years of flat enrollments? Were the preferred candidate and his wife ready to put down roots in a community quite different from the one where they had lived for more than a decade?

At a second institution, a large public research university, the search committee recommended the appointment of a candidate who could advance the university’s standing among its peers. Strongly qualified for this assignment he was. But did he understand the complexities of a campus and a system with competing centers of power and layers of bureaucracy? Did he know enough about the legendary political complexities of the state in which he was invited to live and work?

A third example of early exit occurred at a midsize, respected technological university. The institution was stable and financially sound. But its aging faculty showed little interest in updating the science curricula developed in the 1980s and 1990s and even less interest in cross-disciplinary teaching and research. The trustees understood that their university slowly but surely was losing its competitive edge. The new appointee had impressive research credentials and had managed scientific institutes and laboratories. But did she appreciate the difference between setting new expectations for a traditional, somewhat skeptical, faculty and supervising teams of untenured, mostly junior scientists and technical personnel?

Other individual and institutional profiles I analyzed presented variations on this theme. Sound search processes, extensive and professionally prepared briefs, highly qualified candidates … and very short tenures.

The common thread in most of the profiles I reconstructed? From start to finish, participants in the search process focused intensely on the candidates’ personal attributes, less so on relevant work experience, and least intensely on the specific challenges that awaited the most skilled and personable candidates in the pool. Search consultants and search committees produced the results they were charged with producing: legally and academically sound processes and qualified candidates who fit the institutional briefs. “Mismatches” and “misalignments” occurred at the next stage in the search process, when the decision makers -- trustees and system heads -- paid too little attention to the onboarding of their appointees.

In a general sense, the new CEOs were well qualified for presidential responsibilities. But they were not well prepared to understand the distinct cultural and political environments and to tackle the specific academic and financial challenges of the institution.

Professional associations that serve college and university trustees have been aware for some time that higher education needs more effective onboarding practices. Models are available not only in the corporate world but also among major foundations, nonprofit hospitals and so forth. We in higher education need to revisit this issue and the applicable models.

Some system chancellors and trustees acknowledge the high cost of overlooking the importance of onboarding practices. Presidents who have recovered from painful experiences, or who are now retired, are also willing to share what they learned. Let us take advantage of these resources and thus reduce the probability of future “mismatches” and “misalignments.”

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