Stewarding the Presidency

Concerned by the frequency in presidential transitions, Mark Putnam calls for a change in perspective.

November 29, 2022
Mark Putnam and two other white men in academic regalia.
Mark Putnam (center), Central College’s 21st president, was joined at his 2010 inauguration by (at left) Central’s 17th president, Arend “Don” Lubbers, who led Central from 1960 to 1969, and (right) 20th president David Roe, who served from 1998 to 2010.
(Dan Vander Beek Photography/Courtesy of Central College)

I am serving in my 13th year as the president of Central College in Pella, Iowa—my 40th year in higher education.

While I certainly have presidential colleagues who have equaled or exceeded my years of leadership service, I have become increasingly concerned by the number of public and private institutions that have appointed as many as four presidents during the dozen years I have been in this role. My intent is not to argue that all college and university presidential appointments could or should be long-term. My concern is that the accelerating turnover rate across the postsecondary landscape is only breeding more turnover. When an institution becomes accustomed to frequent presidential transitions, commitment to sustained leadership erodes.

Breaking that cycle requires a concerted effort.

As I survey the landscape, I see institutions with sustained presidential leadership for 10 or more years tangibly benefiting from the capacity to undertake and succeed with long-term, large-scale initiatives. The intangibles also are compelling as I engage in conversations with presidents who have enjoyed long tenures. Their institutional knowledge runs deep, their forged relationships across constituencies are sturdy and their confidence in pressing forward despite the challenges is reassuring.

By contrast, I also have learned from presidential colleagues who have come to office following multiple, sometimes turbulent, transitions. Most are well prepared, creative and energetic. Some, however, buckle beneath the weight of conflicting expectations. They find it difficult to metabolize residual negative energy and struggle to find their leadership voices in this new context. They seem to be reacting more than responding. The tyranny of the urgent appears overwhelming. Too many are forced to look over their shoulders rather than toward the horizon. Despite the best of intentions, support from the campus community and board feels tentative and conditional. In these settings, the chain of leadership continuity has been broken to the point that institutional energy moves sideways rather than forward.

Breaking this pattern is an enormous undertaking for a new president and can only be achieved with the eager commitment of the governing board. While the advantages of presidential continuity may be self-evident, the pathway may not be visible to those who must travel it.

Two changes in perspective are needed to reset the course of institutions experiencing frequent presidential transitions.

Stewarding the Presidency as an Institution Within an Institution

At its best, the effective stewardship of the presidency of a college or university is rooted in a clear understanding that the office is enduring—while its present occupant serves for only a time.

Stewarding a presidency is a different task for a board than managing a president. When I began my appointment at Central in 2010, my four immediate predecessors were available to me. Their service to the college dated back to 1960. Yes, that’s 50 years.

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During my early days, I had the privilege of meeting with each of them to gain perspective of their time serving the college. Two have since passed away. I feel the loss keenly. Yet the overall rewards of having access to their institutional knowledge and leadership experience have been immeasurable. Through these conversations, I became increasingly mindful that my inheritance was rich.

The real benefit, however, was understanding the origins of plans previously set in motion, policies crafted and programs enacted. Some endured and some did not, but it was evident to me that if I did not own all the work of my predecessors and, in turn, work for my successors, I would misunderstand my role in stewarding the presidency.

Presidential continuity begins with a mind-set shared by the president and governing board that slavishness to immediacy yields only partial solutions to seemingly intractable problems. Lengthening the horizon of thought, plan and decision requires determination to combine relentless patience with relentless execution. The board I serve has demonstrated impressive discernment and disciplined and focused governance through many years. The steadiness I enjoy today is primarily due to their careful stewardship of the presidency over time.

Embracing Long-Term, Large-Scale Initiatives

Some of the most impactful initiatives take a long time to design and implement if they are to produce lasting results. This kind of effort cannot be accomplished during a short-term presidency.

In 2011, during my second year at Central, we began to develop a fresh strategic plan. Given the historic strength of the college’s STEM-related programs, the presence of a robust local and regional manufacturing base (and several Fortune 500 companies), and a ready student market, we began to contemplate the addition of an undergraduate electrical/mechanical engineering program set in the context of liberal education. The task was enormous. It required immense faculty time, administrative support, donor commitment, alumni engagement and industry partnerships. In 2018 we graduated our first students, and in 2022 we received ABET accreditation. This project took 10 years and was worth every minute of effort. I credit the continuity of faculty, administrative and board leadership over time as the bedrock of the effort’s success.

We often hear about the importance of picking “low-hanging fruit” and pursuing “early wins.” These may help launch a presidency in its early days but will not sustain a presidency through time. The successful stewardship of a presidency is manifested in its enduring qualities over generations, as tradition and innovation are not in conflict but in collaboration.

A Shared Perspective

Stewarding a presidency through time requires a shared perspective and a common commitment. This attention can be especially valuable when seeking to break a pattern of turnover. In stewarding a presidency, we accept setbacks as learning opportunities. We permit reasonable risk-taking and speculative investment. We allow time for process legitimacy to undergird change management.

I am the 21st president of an institution that is nearly 170 years old.

In this context, stewardship of the presidency is not about the next year. It’s about the next decade—or maybe even the next century.

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Mark Putnam is the president of Central College in Pella, Iowa.

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