Is a President's Job Harder Than It Used to Be?

The really difficult part lies precisely in those areas where college and university leaders cannot borrow from corporate values and practices, writes Clara M. Lovett.

December 11, 2019
 
 
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Unexpected resignations, sometimes shrouded in mystery. Shorter tenures on average. Controversial contract renewals. Difficulties in putting together executive teams. What is happening in the world of college and university presidents?

As they try to make sense of a complex picture -- to identify some common threads that might bind individual stories -- scholars and pundits alike ask the same question: Is the president’s job today more difficult than in the recent past?

I don’t think so. The responsibilities of the job have not changed appreciably in the past 20 years. Presidents are still expected to provide ethical and intellectual leadership, to muster and manage resources, and to build successful relationships with internal and external constituencies. What has changed is the environment in which presidents meet those responsibilities.

Within and outside academe, observers have described the new environment as “the corporatization of higher education.” “Corporatization” is a clumsy and imprecise term that I prefer not to use. Yet a significant literature has grown around both the concept and the practice.

Since the 1990s, we have heard legislators and private donors including alumni, from the perspective of investors, argue that colleges and universities should be managed like businesses, with attention to markets, outcomes and costs. We have heard students make similar arguments from the perspective of consumers.

In the process, the list of qualifications and attributes that drives most presidential searches keeps getting rearranged. Financial savvy, political skills and fundraising experience are now at the top of the list. Ethical and intellectual leadership still get perfunctory mention in job descriptions, but not necessarily in presidential employment contracts. The rearrangement of priorities in pursuit of maximizing resources and managing efficiently has had consequences, some intended and some not.

To attain an initial appointment and to continue in office, presidents must be attentive to the expectations of their trustees, who in turn respond to their institution’s investors, or their legislators, donors and alumni. Trustees do not look at quarterly reports of earnings, unless, of course, they oversee for-profit institutions. They do, however, look for evidence of responsible financial management, reputational rankings and customer satisfaction.

And like their counterparts on corporate boards, most of higher education’s investors are more comfortable with uncontroversial projects likely to yield quick results, like a new building or endowment gift, than they are with projects requiring sustained and long-term efforts, such as new program design or major reorganizations of academic units.

At the same time, presidents must be no less attentive to the expectations of their institution’s primary consumers, the students. Here again, the trend is to accommodate urgent requests by the most vocal constituents, whether or not such requests are consistent with the strategic priorities and long-term interests of the institution.

Another important and most probably unintended consequence of corporatization is the central role of executive search firms. Higher education’s governing boards recognize that they need help to conduct presidential searches, but it is not clear whether they also recognize the pitfalls of the current system. Many executive search firms benefit directly from the trend toward shorter and shorter presidential tenures. The greater the churning in the presidents’ world, the greater the opportunities to sign new contracts. A related problem is that executive recruiters sometimes work for the boards that retain their services and, at the same time, look after candidates they have pledged to place in top institutional positions.

Provided they comply with applicable antidiscrimination statutes, corporate trustees can and do conduct confidential CEO searches, usually with minimal input from stakeholders outside the board itself. Despite objections from representatives of the faculty and, less frequently, from student leaders, higher education’s trustees are moving in the same direction. Once the new president has been selected, higher education’s investors and consumers look for short-term successes, especially those that result in favorable news-media coverage. For their part, the new appointees look for a reasonable degree of job security and, whenever possible, for golden parachutes.

Until the 1990s, most presidential aspirants came from the ranks of provosts and academic deans. For them, job security usually meant a tenured faculty appointment alongside the negotiated presidential contract. Whatever the circumstances, at the end of his or her negotiated contract, the president had the option of continuing to serve the institution in a different role. This is still common practice in academe. But as the presidential talent pool has become more diverse professionally, the value of the traditional parachute has diminished. Other incentives are taking its place: higher compensation, perks and bonuses, and generous severance packages following negotiated resignations or retirements.

Here again, the adoption of corporate practices is driving profound cultural changes in higher education, most notably the unprecedented differences in compensation between presidents and most of their faculty members. In this culture, presidential appointees expect, or at least take into account, the probability of a short-term relationship with their employer. As they sign a contract, they remain vigilant and attentive to a possible next move.

If the successful candidates are pleased with the efforts of the executive search firm that placed them in the new position, they have a strong incentive to maintain relationships with principals in that firm … just in case! Frequently, as the new appointees build their executive teams, those relationships generate additional contracts for the favored firm.

The Question of Ethical and Intellectual Leadership

Like all cultural changes, the corporatization of higher education has thus far had both positive and negative impacts. The most positive aspect by far has been the broadening of the talent pool from which college and university presidents are selected.

Candidates from outside academe have brought to many institutions valuable skills and experiences, and often a willingness to ask tough questions about resource management, dated academic programs and dysfunctional decision-making structures. A broader talent pool has also opened up more opportunities for minority professionals, especially those with student affairs, communications, human resources and marketing backgrounds.

But on the negative side, corporatization has encouraged risk aversion and short-term thinking among presidential appointees who feel they have to hedge their bets against possible short tenures.

A less obvious problem, one that requires more thoughtful analysis and discussion, is that presidential appointees are wary of taking public positions on the most crucial issues facing their communities and the nation. This new culture is one reason -- though certainly not the only one -- why iconic 20th-century figures like Father Hesburgh and Clark Kerr have had so few successors willing to speak out in our time.

Can the corporatization of higher education be slowed or reversed? Probably not. We have entered an era of consolidation, with scores of small institutions closing their doors. Whether public or private, today’s leaders in the nonprofit space are complex organizations. We can expect that, like their counterparts in for-profit enterprises, the men and women in charge of colleges and universities will rotate in and out of executive positions as economic, demographic and political conditions change around their institutions -- and as investors and consumers change their minds about who might best meet their needs.

The largest, best managed and most innovative higher education enterprises will do fine in the decades ahead. They are widely recognized, if not always well supported, as foundations of our country’s political, military and economic might.

But who will pick up the mantle of ethical and intellectual leadership that distinguishes educational institutions from all other providers of goods and services in our society?

This is the most crucial and difficult challenge facing sitting and aspiring presidents, trustees, recruiters and all of us who care. Higher education’s sector leaders are blessed with plenty of talent in their executive suites. Successful presidents and their teams know how to manage resources, woo skeptical legislators and donors, recruit famous scholars, plan spectacular buildings, and much more. Those presidential responsibilities have become more complex over time, requiring greater team effort, but they are not inherently more difficult or onerous than they used to be.

The really difficult part of the job lies precisely in those areas where college and university presidents cannot borrow from and adapt corporate values and practices that most easily respond to investors and consumers.

Will the responsibility for modeling ethical and intellectual leadership revert to thinkers and activists outside academe who are not responsible for managing our institutions and thus are not directly beholden to investors and customers? Will this responsibility be embraced more fully and formally by concerned citizens within our colleges and universities -- especially distinguished senior faculty who can speak with authority about issues such as war and peace, climate change, the global economic system, public health, and others?

Is it time to unbundle a multifaceted and idealized role that few presidents are able and willing to perform in the current environment? We need to find answers to these questions sooner rather than later.

Bio

Clara M. Lovett is president emerita of Northern Arizona University.

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