22 August · Episode 169
Navigating President Turnover: Higher Ed Leadership Challenges
25 Min · By Dr. Drumm McNaughton
Discover the impact of president turnover on higher ed leadership. Explore causes, DEI, governance issues, and retention solutions.
President turnover is a major problem for higher ed leadership, with the average tenure of leaders serving in this capacity at one institution declining sharply from 10 years to a shocking 3.7 years.
In this first half of a two-part series, Dr. Drumm McNaughton discusses the challenges facing university presidents and why their tenures have become so short with a nationally recognized authority figure who has one of the best track records and overall experience under his belt to speak on such a topic, Chancellor Emeritus Dr. William E. “Brit” Kirwan of the University System of Maryland. Few are as qualified to do so as Brit, having served as chancellor at the University System of Maryland for 13 years, president of The Ohio State University for four years, and president of the University of Maryland College Park for ten years.
Part two of this series will cover what higher ed can do to improve university president retention.
- The role of the university president has become much more complex and challenging over the last few years, causing the average tenure of presidents to fall from 10 to 3.7 years. There has never been more political interference and influence on higher ed as there is now, especially in Texas, Florida, and North Carolina. For example, the governor of Florida recently directed his attorney general to file a lawsuit against the Department of Education on changing accreditors.
- There’s also an unprecedented amount of pushback on DEI when diversity and inclusion were once very much a part of higher ed. In Ohio, a very anti-DEI bill was introduced that would restrict what higher education could do on diversity issues. This change in focus is forcing presidents to juggle what can be taught in the classroom and their faculty, who are very much invested in DEI initiatives.
- Divisions and political beliefs are also over-influencing boards, causing them to be more directive and engaged in operational issues than they should be. As a result, sound board governance has declined, with many boards going rogue. Politicized boards also are forcing presidents to translate policy into operations when this should be done in parallel and jointly by the board, while boards are sticking their noses into what can be taught, which should be decided by the president.
- For example, at the University of Virginia, the board chair recently told the president to announce her resignation at the next board meeting before board members were made aware of this decision. At Chapel Hill, the board refused to grant tenure to a distinguished journalist for political reasons. A similar situation occurred at Texas A&M.
- Funding issues are mounting and will likely worsen, forcing presidents to make massive cuts to programs, negatively affecting faculty morale. Presidents are also more involved in fundraising than ever, complicating their leadership roles. Meanwhile, big-time intercollegiate athletic programs are forcing presidents to cobble together money to keep these expensive enterprises afloat.
- There are two reasons universities can still hire presidents despite these major problems. The first is that it’s human nature to want to advance and meet new challenges. As a result, many people are still compelled to rise to the top. The second is that salaries and compensation packages for presidents have escalated dramatically. There are several presidents earning compensation packages of $1 million or more per year.
About Our Podcast Guest
Dr. William E. “Brit” Kirwan is chancellor emeritus of the University System of Maryland (USM). He is a nationally recognized authority on critical issues facing higher education. He served as chancellor of the University System of Maryland (USM) for 13 years (2002-2015), president of the Ohio State University for four years (1998-2002), and president of the University of Maryland, College Park for 10 years (1988-1998). Prior to his presidency, he was a member of the University of Maryland mathematics faculty for 24 years.
Dr. Kirwan is the past chair of, among other boards, the American Council for Higher Education, the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities, the American Association of Colleges & Universities, the Business Higher Education Forum, and the National Research Council Board on Higher Education and Workforce. He also served as the co-chair and chair of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics from 2004 to 2016. Presently, he chairs a Statewide Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, which has been asked to make recommendations to the Governor and General Assembly to enable Maryland schools to perform at the level of the world’s best school systems.
Among Dr. Kirwan’s many honors is the 2010 TIAA-CREF Theodore M. Hesburgh Award for Leadership Excellence. Considered one of the nation’s top higher education honors, this award recognizes outstanding leadership in higher education and contributions to the greater good. In 2009, he received the Carnegie Corporation Leadership Award, which included a $500,000 grant to support USM academic priorities. Dr. Kirwan was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2002 and inducted into the Baltimore Sun’s Maryland Business and Civic Hall of Fame in 2017.
Dr. Kirwan received his bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the University of Kentucky and his master’s and doctoral degrees in mathematics from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, in 1962 and 1964, respectively.
About the Host
Dr. Drumm McNaughton, host of Changing Higher Ed®, is a consultant to higher education institutions in governance, accreditation, strategy and change, and mergers.
Transcript: Changing Higher Ed Podcast 168 with Host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and Guest Brit Kirwan
Welcome to Changing Higher Ed, a podcast dedicated to helping higher education leaders improve their institutions, with your host, Dr. Drumm McNaughton, CEO of the Change Leader, a consultancy that helps higher ed leaders holistically transform their institutions. Learn more at changinghighered.com. And now, here’s your host, Drumm McNaughton.
Drumm McNaughton 00:30
Thank you, David. Our guest today is Dr. William Brit Kirwan, chancellor emeritus at the University System of Maryland, a nationally recognized authority figure on the critical issues facing higher education. He has served as chancellor of the University System of Maryland for 13 years, president of The Ohio State University for four years, and president of the University of Maryland College Park for 10 years. Prior to his presidency, Brit was a member of the University of Maryland mathematics faculty for 24 years.
Brit is a past chair of various boards, including the American Council of Education, the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities, the American Association of Colleges and Universities in the Business Higher Education Forum, and the National Research Council Board on Higher Education and Workforce. In other words, Brit knows higher education, especially from the perspective of having sat in the big chair. He joins us today in this the first of a two-part series to talk about the challenges facing university presidents, why their tenures have become so short, and what can be done to remedy that. Brit, welcome to the show.
Brit Kirwan 01:46
Drumm, it’s great to be with you.
Drumm McNaughton 01:49
Likewise. We’ve done a lot of work together on governance issues and the like. You’ve also pointed me in the direction of some great guests for the podcast. But you being on the podcast is a first for us.
Brit Kirwan 02:02
Well, I want you to know that I’m honored and have enjoyed working with you. I have learned a great deal from you.
Drumm McNaughton 02:09
Likewise, my friend. I don’t want this to turn into a mutual admiration society. But having said that, each time we get a chance to work together, I am even more amazed at the depth of your knowledge and experience.
You’re too kind.
And I can’t think of anyone better qualified to talk about our subject today, which is what’s going on with presidents tenures and why they’re getting shorter.
Brit Kirwan 02:50
Well, I’ve been through a lot of battles. So I hope I can share some of those experiences with you.
Drumm McNaughton 02:55
When I take a look at the list of folks who have been in the big chair, I think I know of only one president who’s been in that it long, and it’s someone whom we both know, Gordon Gee. You have tremendous experience, and we’re going to tap into it.
Brit Kirwan 03:13
You know, the interesting thing about Gordon is I was both his successor and predecessor in Ohio State.
Drumm McNaughton 03:21
We’re not going to go there with that one. Now, Gordon is a wonderful man. He’s doing incredible things at West Virginia that are very, very difficult to do. I respect him for that because he’s staying around and making sure it gets done properly.
Now, half the people in higher ed already know your background. But for the other half who do not, please give us a little bit about your background.
Brit Kirwan 03:54
Absolutely. I’ll try to keep this short. I was born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky. My father had a long association with the University of Kentucky when I was born, believe it or not. He was the football coach at the university.
Really! I didn’t know that.
He later quit coaching during World War II when there were no football teams, went to Duke, got his PhD., returned to Kentucky, and became a very distinguished history professor. Then he became president there. So I grew up in a family that lived and breathed higher education. It was, therefore, very natural for me to pursue a career in higher education. His discipline was history. Mine turned out to be mathematics.
When I graduated from university, the nation was so concerned about the Soviet Union’s spacecraft that the U.S. created this very well-funded program called the National Defense and Education Act that gave fellowships to people who received a Ph.D. in math and the physical sciences. I was fortunate enough to get one of those fellowships and went to Rutgers, where I got my Ph.D. in mathematics.
Then my wife and I moved to Maryland, where I took my first job at the University of Maryland and spent 24 wonderful years, first as an assistant and then as an associate professor before becoming a full professor of mathematics. I loved being a professor, teaching, and researching.
Then it became my turn to be department chair. I was department chair for four years, and then all of a sudden, the university needed a provost. I was asked to step into that role. I served in that capacity for seven years and then as president of the University of Maryland for a decade, which is roughly as long as someone ought to be leading an institution, in my personal opinion. There are many successful presidents who’ve served much longer than 10 years, and I certainly respect that.
I then went to Ohio State and had a wonderful experience there. But Maryland came calling again and asked me to come back and be the chancellor of the 12-campus University of Maryland system. I did that in 2002 and stayed in that position until 2015 when I stepped down. Since then, I’ve been consulting with good people like you on governance issues and serving on a bunch of boards while still playing a lot of tennis and enjoying life.
Drumm McNaughton 06:40
Wow, that’s really good. I want to circle back to your father, though. I didn’t know about that. He may be one of the first, if not the first, person who’s been a football coach and moved into the presidency. The other I know is Jim Tressel.
Brit Kirwan 06:58
Yes, absolutely. I hired Jim Tressel when I was at Ohio State.
Drumm McNaughton 07:03
He’s been the president at Youngstown State for eight years. Then there is Roger Hughes, who is the president up at Doane.
Brit Kirwan 07:18
At Maryland, where I’m still very involved, Curley Byrd was famous or, I might also say, infamous president of the University of Maryland. He started out as a football coach and later became the president. He never became a faculty member the way my father did. But he was someone else who went that route.
Drumm McNaughton 07:41
So, Roger went from football coach at Doane before going to Princeton, where he turned around that program before Doane hired him back as president. Regardless, it’s an amazing background.
Unlike our friend Gordon, you’ve been able to hold a job. Gordon, if you’re listening to this, I love you, brother. But you’ve seen a lot. The Maryland system has 12 campuses, so you’ve been very much involved with multiple campuses. But over the past 20 years, the tenure of the university president has decreased a little bit. I think that’s probably a nice way to say it. I just read that it’s down from over 10 to 3.7 years. What’s going on? This is crazy!
Brit Kirwan 08:46
I didn’t realize it had gotten down that low, although I knew the length of tenure had been declining significantly. But I have to say, being a university president has become very different. It was always difficult. But it has become much more difficult, even in the relatively brief time since I stepped down as chancellor of the University of Maryland system. I think there’s a number of factors that are making it so difficult right now.
Drumm McNaughton 09:17
You mean besides elections, right?
Brit Kirwan 09:21
To some extent, the great divisions we have in our country can’t help but be reflected in higher education and, in fact, all walks of life. When I was a president or chancellor for 28 years, there was never a time when there was as much political interference and influence on higher education as there is now. We obviously see this in Texas, Florida, and North Carolina. But it’s not just in the southern states. There was a very anti-DEI bill introduced in Ohio that would put restrictions on what higher education could do on diversity issues.
There’s a lot of pushback on DEI. This is a totally new dynamic that wasn’t present when I was president or chancellor. “Diversity” and “inclusion” were the passwords of every institution. It was part of our culture and our aspiration to be more inclusive.
But in a relatively short time, that has totally reversed in many states, and this puts the president between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, presidents in many states are under enormous political pressure on what can be taught, how they can be taught, how money can be spent, and inclusion issues. Then, on the other hand, you have faculty that live and breathe this culture of inclusion, and the president has to find their way between these two very opposite forces. It’s a huge factor that is affecting the presidency.
I feel board governance has changed as well, something you and I have been working on. These divisions and political beliefs are influencing boards. So boards have become much more directive and engaged in operational issues. I think overall, good board governance has declined as a result of this. You see all sorts of boards going rogue, even at some of our best institutions.
A classy case is the University of Virginia, which is one of the greatest public universities in the United States. And you would think a place like that with such a long history would have governance right. Well, just a few years ago, the board chair didn’t like what the president was doing and thought the president wasn’t moving fast enough on some issues. The chair brought the president into a meeting and told her that they were having a board meeting early that day and wanted her to announce her resignation. This had not been cleared with anybody else on the board.
So they go into this board meeting, and the board chair starts by saying, “Our president has an announcement to make.” And the president says, “Well, I’m stepping down.” The jaws of many on the board dropped and asked, “Why is this happening? Why are you doing this?” This is an example of flawed governance that can even happen at very distinguished institutions. So that’s a factor.
There are also funding issues that are mounting, and I believe they’re going to get much worse. You mentioned Gordon Gee. I think West Virginia has a $70 million deficit. Gordon’s trying to address those funding issues by cutting programs. There’s nothing else you can do. You have to get rid of programs. You can’t possibly do it any other way. Well, you can imagine faculty members don’t like that. They don’t want programs cut. So we have faculty morale issues on our campuses.
Fundraising has also become such a central part of the president’s role. It’s always been thought of as a 24/7 job. But, boy, it’s a 24/7 job on steroids.
Finally, for those institutions that are involved big time in intercollegiate athletics, you couldn’t have conceived 10 years ago that players would be earning over $1 million and coaches earning $10 million or that universities would be cobbling together money to keep this expensive enterprise afloat, with schools jumping from one conference to another.
There’s just a whole myriad of issues. It’s a perfect storm in a way that has zeroed in on universities and, in particular, on presidents. I think that’s why we’re seeing these 10-year tenures decline. Over this past summer, we’ve had five or six major university presidents announce their resignations, probably much earlier than they had originally intended.
Drumm McNaughton 14:33
Definitely. I want to circle back to board governance and politics. The governor of Florida has directed his attorney general to file a lawsuit against the Department of Education on changing accreditors. That’s fine. But one of the big things driving that is the question of “who owns the university?” Essentially all accreditors have what they call independent board policies, which originated with the advent of for-profit education to make sure that the university can do what it needs to do. This Florida lawsuit is pushing back against that, saying they’re a public university funded by the state. We, therefore, own it and should be able to direct what they teach. So that’s just one more factor that plays into the challenges that university presidents have.
When I think about it, the most difficult position in a corporation is that of the director because you’re having to take policy and translate that into operations. These political board challenges are forcing presidents to fill that role. You’re having other people set policy direction, which is part of the board’s role, but it’s supposed to be done in parallel and jointly. You’re getting the board stepping into areas that they shouldn’t be stepping into like what you can teach.
Brit Kirwan 16:24
Right. What can you teach? Who can you hire? The famous case at Chapel Hill is when the board wouldn’t grant tenure to this distinguished journalist. The same thing happened just recently at Texas A&M. You know so well better than most how this intrusion into the curriculum and appointments, etc., flies into the face of best governance practices in higher education.
People say we have the best system of higher education in the world and I agree. But the best universities are worried about whether they will be able to continue making that statement going forward. In large part, this statement has been true because governing boards accepted the fact that they were independent. They had to act independently of the state government. Obviously, private institutions do, but so have public universities, and that was respected. It was built into the modus operandi state after state.
I know from my time in Ohio and Maryland and from colleagues elsewhere that boards have taken pride in the fact that they had this independence. If they were, their allegiance was to the best interest of the university, not to the appointing authority that brought them to their position on the board. That seems to be going away in our country.
Drumm McNaughton 18:07
You and I have seen this upfront, close, and personal with certain boards who will remain nameless. These boards have more allegiance to the people who appointed them.
Brit Kirwan 18:23
You and I both do continuing education for governing boards. And this is a point that I hammer on, as I’m sure you do. When I’m talking about the role of the board and its independence, I’m thinking a lot of boards are going to look at you and say, “Not this board. Not in this environment.” This is very troubling. If this trend continues, it is going to do irreparable harm to the quality of higher education.
I don’t know how I could be a president at a Florida university. Those folks are doing the best they can down there. I have great respect for them and appreciate what they are trying to do. But when you’re captured by the political views of the elected officials in the state, you lose such a fundamental aspect of what higher education is supposed to be.
Drumm McNaughton 19:27
Why would anybody at this point want to be university president?
Brit Kirwan 19:31
That’s a great question. I’ve thought about that. Two things occur to me that enable universities to continue finding presidents. The first is that you have the traditional route where a faculty member becomes a full professor before getting into administration. So you start going up the administrative ladder, and the top of that ladder is the president. It’s in our nature to want to advance and meet new challenges. So if there’s a hierarchical system, there will be quite a number of people who are going to want to rise to the top.
And let’s be honest. Salaries and compensation packages for presidents have escalated dramatically. There are a number of presidents who are earning a million dollars. Mouths dropped open when a public university president was getting that kind of compensation. Now it’s commonplace. The list goes on and on. It’s not just the salary. You live in a big house and have cars, people drive you, and you have all these benefits. There are many aspects of this life, which sound and look very appealing. And then you have these golden handcuffs with buyout packages. So, there’s a very substantial financial reward. That’s undoubtedly a reason why you see people being willing to take on some of these very difficult challenges that we’ve just been talking about.
Drumm McNaughton 21:31
But we have to remember, if you really want to go for compensation, you should become a head football coach. You have far fewer headaches. As a football coach, you have around 100 players on your team. As a president, you have 40 to 70,000 people you are in charge of. Of course, you have to deal with the political process as a head football coach, but all you have to worry about is winning and losing. And, hopefully, you’re not abusing or harassing your players.
Brit Kirwan 22:10
It’s interesting that you mentioned football coaches. I think in every state in the union, except for Alaska, the football coach is the highest-paid public official in the state.
Drumm McNaughton 22:25
It doesn’t surprise me at all. It’s a testament to the value system of what we think is important here in this country.
Brit Kirwan 22:40
This is a topic for a different day, but what big-time intercollegiate athletics is doing to our universities today is a great disservice because they are forcing the universities to live in a very hypocritical way. On one hand, they have these values driven by the academy that they adhere to. Then on the other hand, all these excesses and enormous expenditures that intercollegiate athletics have stand in contrast to the investment in the academy.
Drumm McNaughton 23:24
Oh, most definitely. And just kind of an aside, I reached out to Amy Perko who I know you know very well. She’s going to be coming back onto the podcast to talk a lot about this.
Brit Kirwan 23:36
Great. I have worked with Amy very closely. I was on the chair of the Knight Commission for a period of time, and she is exceptional.
Drumm McNaughton 23:45
She certainly is. I have a great interview with her. Well, I can’t believe how quickly the time has gone by. We’ve reached the first half of this podcast. With that, we’re going to ask our listeners to tune in next week for the conclusion of this great show with William Brit Kirwan. Brit, thanks for being on the show. We’ll see you next week.
Brit Kirwan 24:13
It’s been a blessing. I love chatting with you, Drumm.
Drumm McNaughton 24:16
Likewise. Thanks for listening I’d also like to give a special thank you to our guest Dr. William Brit Kirwan. Tune in next week for the conclusion of my conversation with him on presidential turnover, what’s going on, and what can be done.
Changing Higher Ed is a production of the Change Leader, a consultancy committed to transforming higher ed institutions. Find more information about this topic and show notes on this episode at changinghighered.com. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe to the show. We would also value your honest rating and review. Email any questions, comments, or recommendations for topics or guests to email@example.com. Changing Higher Ed is produced and hosted by Dr. Drumm McNaughton. Post-production is by David L. White.