29 August · Episode 170
Improving Presidential Tenure and Effectiveness in Higher Education
30 Min · By Dr. Drumm McNaughton
Insights for universities to cultivate longer and more impactful presidential tenures, resulting in greater stability, improved institutional performance, and strengthened relationships.
Higher education must strive to increase the average presidential tenure, which currently stands at a dismal 3.7 years. This can be accomplished by addressing ineffective presidential onboarding processes and shared governance best practices, among others.
In this second half of a two-part series, Dr. Drumm McNaughton discusses best practices and strategies 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. Brit has 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 10 years.
Part one of this series addressed the challenges facing university presidents and the root causes of tenure decline.
- The process for onboarding presidents includes hiring a search consultant, identifying a screening committee that’s representative of the university, gathering and narrowing down a pool of candidates, and bringing those candidates in for a 60- or 90-minute interview. This process is flawed.
- Interviews don’t provide enough substance despite serving as the most critical factor in hiring a president. Every person on 15- to 20-member boards only gets to ask one question, and applicants are only expected to provide brief answers.
- In addition, presidents who would have been perfect for the institution are oftentimes dismissed if they just happened to have an off day. Although the interview process is getting longer and involves more representation, the board is generally influenced by their one interview.
- It is difficult to gauge the effectiveness of an applicant who has never served as a president before. There isn’t another campus role like the president, who serves as the face and voice of the institution in the public eye and can do it effectively in a way that advances the institution.
- Universities and search committees are oftentimes too passive and rely too much on search consultants. Although search consultants play a valuable role, search committee members know the institution best and have the right contacts. This should be the primary or major source for presidential candidates.
- Incoming presidents who are not familiar with their new university must become informed about its culture, traditions, interests, challenges, and priorities. New presidents can accomplish this by identifying a seasoned individual or a consultancy to interview administrators, faculty, staff, students, board members, and members of the community to understand the institution’s aspirations and challenges.
- Presidents and board members must have a very clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities to prevent board intrusion and micromanaging. Ground rules must also be identified from the start. Additionally, presidents need to insist upon an annual board review so there’s a written record of what the board wants done and how successful the president was in addressing them. This will help prevent boards from inventing or revising points in their favor.
- Shared governance in consultation with representative bodies must be respected. Presidents should resist the ongoing pressure from boards and external forces to take immediate action. The community must have demonstrated respect, trust, confidence, and commitment to consultation and shared governance.
- Successful shared governance usually has a nonhierarchical three-tiered system. Tier one includes representative bodies of faculty, staff, and students. Some of them are rolled into one entity, while others are separate. The second tier is administration. The third tier is the governing board.
- There needs to be a clear understanding that the board has the final authority on everything they choose because they are the legal entity created by the state to run the institution. However, the most successful systems see the board delegating a great deal of this authority. In particular, the board should delegate authority on matters they don’t have expertise in, such as academic curricula and academic appointments. Some boards rubber stamp tenure recommendations. Shared governance works effectively when the board delegates certain authorities to the president, such as appointments to cabinets and even for tenure.
- Any campus constituency—such as faculty, staff, students, and, in some cases, all of them—that is affected by any major policy decision must be consulted. Recommendations must also go to the president. Based on the model, the president either acts on these recommendations or refines them so they’re appropriate for administrators and then takes these recommendations to the board, who then acts upon them. This is based on the RACI model.
- Presidents must build a relationship of trust with the board, both collectively and individually. They must interact with the board outside of committee and/or board meetings. A successful practice includes speaking with one board member every week to see how they are doing, what is happening, and if they have any thoughts or concerns.
- The board has to be kept informed on all matters. There can be no surprises. There’s nothing that board members should learn about by reading the newspaper, for example.
- Successful presidents are accessible, visible, and good listeners. Good listeners can put themselves in another’s situation and fully understand why that other person holds that view. To build consensus and have strong support over an extended period, the community must believe they are heard and understand why certain decisions are made, especially if they go against what they want.
- Presidents must walk the walk and talk the talk. Their behavior must emulate the values they’re espousing. For example, presidents should reject salary increases or bonuses if no one else is receiving raises.
- Give bad news or admit mistakes when they happen rather than trying to cover them up. Presidents who are not candid will be haunted by this in the future.
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 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 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 that would 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 170 with Host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and Guest Brit Kirwan:
Improving Presidential Tenure and Effectiveness in Higher Education
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. Today, we welcome back Dr. Brit Kerwan, chancellor emeritus of the University of Maryland system. He’s a nationally recognized authority figure on the critical issues facing higher education, having served as chancellor of the Maryland system for 13 years, president of The Ohio State University for four years, and president of the University of Maryland College Park for 10 years. Brit, welcome back to the show.
Brit Kirwan 01:00
Thank you. My encore performance.
Drumm McNaughton 01:04
The encore performance. We’re going to get into the meat of it. We’ve talked about all the problems that presidents are facing and questioned the sanity of every president who’s ever applied for the job. Now we’re going to start off with some of the factors that have led to the shorter presidencies. We’ve talked about what a difficult job it is and, obviously, that leads to it. But even with the whole process of bringing on a new president, there are all sorts of pitfalls and potholes with that.
Brit Kirwan 01:43
Absolutely. We have a flawed process for finding presidents. The typical thing is you hire a search consultant, have a screening committee that’s representative of the university, gather a pool of candidates, narrow that down, and then bring those candidates in for an interview. That interview can last anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half. The recommendations and some of the committee’s own due diligence are important, but the interview is such a critical part of this process.
The thing about interviews is they give a premium to glitz and glibness, not to substance. I remember being interviewed or sitting in when presidents were being interviewed by boards with 15 to 20 people. For these walk-ins, each board member gets to ask one question because there isn’t enough time to do more. You go around the room, and they all ask a question. These applicants then give short, little answers to these various questions. Then, primarily, based on that interview, plus the letters of reference and other things, the board makes a decision. Now, there are likely many instances where the board has interviewed somebody of real substance who’s done great things and who would have been perfect for the institution but that person didn’t have the greatest day or their words didn’t come out right on that occasion for the interview. Because of that, the board says, “Forget them. They’re not going to make it.” That’s one factor.
Drumm McNaughton 03:26
But aren’t the interview processes getting longer and consisting of multiple groups including faculty?
Brit Kirwan 03:34
They are. But the board makes the final decision. Of course, the board will hear what the other groups have to say and will listen to them. But they’re going to make their mind up in large part based on what they see during their interview.
Another thing that’s true is looking at candidates who have not been a president before. Let’s say they were a provost. A lot of universities, particularly in the public sector, like the idea of looking at someone like the provost of Harvard or MIT as a candidate for president. However, the nature and expectations of the presidency make it very difficult to assess whether someone who has not been a president would make an effective president.
If you want to find a good dean, you look for a good department chair. That’s more or less the same job, just a bigger platform. If you want to find a good provost, you look at who’s been a good dean. You’re doing the same thing, but now it’s campus-wide. There really isn’t another role like the president where a person is the face and voice of the institution in the public eye and can do it effectively in a way that advances the institution. That is very hard to judge unless you’ve seen someone play that role.
Drumm McNaughton 05:02
I had a football coach who would have been a great candidate for that.
Brit Kirwan 05:10
I think my father was a good example
Drumm McNaughton 05:14
I would say so. Jim Tressel is another example.
Brit Kirwan 05:17
Yes, he went from football coach to the president of my alma mater. But there’s one other factor that makes the selection process a challenge. In my opinion, it’s the over-reliance on search consultants. Now, I understand the need for search consultants. They can play a valuable role. But in my experience, too often do universities and search committees just sit back and see what the search consultant will bring them.
If it’s done well, Individuals who are appointed to the search committee are the ones who know the institution best. They have contacts all over the country. This should be the primary or major source for presidential candidates. Oftentimes, universities are too passive in building the pool of candidates for the presidency.
Drumm McNaughton 06:13
I can easily see that, especially by the way board members are appointed, especially at public universities. They’re usually appointed by the governor or the legislature. They don’t necessarily have the contacts or the broader higher ed experience to be able to leverage a network.
Brit Kirwan 06:37
That’s right. Exactly. When I was chancellor and charging search committees to look for presidents, that was a point I hammered home. I said that you are truly a search committee. You are the ones who know the university. You know colleagues across the country. You talk to people. You know who would be a good fit for this and can help generate the pool for the presidency. I don’t think that happens often enough.
Drumm McNaughton 07:02
No, it doesn’t. It would be interesting to see any statistics on how long recruiter-based candidates stay on the job versus what you’re suggesting with the search committee networking.
Brit Kirwan 07:20
Yeah. That would be a good PhD thesis.
Drumm McNaughton 07:27
Absolutely. So, these are all factors that are based on your own experience. You’ve done this a lot longer than most people, definitely longer than the average, where presidents turnover after 3.7 years. What advice would you give to presidents coming into a presidency? We’ve talked a little bit about searching for candidates. What advice would you give once the candidates have been selected?
Brit Kirwan 07:55
It is so important not just for the board and institution to get organized for the onboarding of a new president, but also for how a new president approaches this responsibility. I have had two really radically different experiences. I became president at the University of Maryland when I was provost after being on as a faculty member for 28 years or so.
When I was a faculty member, I had been on every campus-wide committee there was. I’d been on the campus senate. I knew people all across the campus. I knew a lot of the groundskeepers. I had a real feel for that institution. When I became the president of College Park, it was quite comfortable. The campus had shown a lot of support for me becoming president, and I knew so much about the campus.
Then I went to Ohio State. This was a huge university, even bigger than the University of Maryland, and I literally didn’t know anybody there. Maybe I’d met a few mathematicians and a couple of administrators. But I didn’t really know the campus or the culture. Nothing.
So I am suddenly on this huge campus, which I am the president of, and I don’t know how to talk to. Who can I trust? Who’s going to tell me the unvarnished truth? How am I going to measure this campus?
Someone then suggested something to me. It was such a good idea. I’m not going to take credit for it. I went to a colleague, Frank Rhodes, who was just stepping down as the president of Cornell. I said, “Frank, would you come out and be my eyes and ears on the campus? I want you to go out and talk to faculty, staff, students, and community members. Would you help me get a feel on the pulse of this institution along with its aspirations and challenges?”
So Frank did that. After a month, he wrote a report for me. I’m telling you. This report was unbelievably valuable. I still had a lot of people to meet. But when I went to meet people, I was so much better informed about the culture, traditions, interests, challenges, and priorities of the institution.
Drumm McNaughton 10:37
You and I did this for one major state flagship just a while back. We went out and interviewed everybody, from the board all the way down to faculty and staff. It was very helpful.
Brit Kirwan 10:57
I couldn’t agree with you more. I was so driven by that example. But let me go into getting inducted into the role within the community. As they move into a presidency, presidents should have a very clear understanding with the board about roles and responsibilities because of all this intrusion we’re seeing of boards getting into the president’s activities and micromanaging.
There ought to be ground rules from the start that the president can point to and remind people about what has been agreed upon. Here is what the board does. Here is what the president does. Enough precedents address that issue. When creating a contract with compensation and data in the buyout clause and data, there ought to be great clarity around that point. I can’t overstate how important this is.
A president also needs to insist upon an annual review by the board so there’s a written record of what the board wanted done and how successful the president was in addressing it. This will prevent boards from inventing things and revising history. That happens.
Drumm McNaughton 12:21
You and I have dealt with both of these things multiple times, where presidents are not getting evaluations on a timely basis and disagreements about roles and responsibilities. In today’s world, you must have that understanding of what your job is and what their job is.
Brit Kirwan 12:45
Right. I also can’t overstate how important respect for shared governance in consultation with representative bodies is for a president. There’s always pressure coming in from the board or some external force to take action and make decisions. That must be resisted.
There may be some rare instances when the president takes lateral action. However, the community must have demonstrated respect, trust, confidence, and commitment to consultation and shared governance. This is absolutely critical for any incoming president.
Drumm McNaughton 13:31
It also can’t just be lip service. We’ve both seen that the most effective form of shared governance is when there are faculty and students who can vote on the board and are members of your cabinet. You can also have one faculty member serve as president of the senate.
Now, a lot of people would argue that this deletes the power of the provost. I would disagree. It gives faculty the feeling that they have a say in matters that are important.
Brit Kirwan 14:08
I never had a faculty member on my cabinet. However, I feel confident that people would assess my tenure as one where I had great respect for the governance bodies of the faculty, staff, and students and where I regularly attended senate meetings and never took policy decisions to the board without appropriate consultation.
Drumm McNaughton 14:34
I agree. So with that, you have some definite ideas on what an effective shared governance system has for tenants.
Brit Kirwan 14:45
Since serving as provost, president, and chancellor, I have given a lot of thought to what would make shared governance successful, even since my days as a faculty member when I was on the campus senate. In my mind, there are three tiers involved in an effective shared governance system. These tiers aren’t part of a hierarchical system. They’re levels.
Tier one includes representative bodies of faculty, staff, and students. In some places, they’re all rolled into one senate. In others, they’re separated. There’s a staff senate. There’s a faculty senate. There’s student government. The second tier is administration. The third tier is the governing board.
At an institution, there needs to be a clear understanding that the board has the final authority on everything they choose to be. They are the legal entity created by the state to run the institution. They delegate authority. In places that work well, there’s a high delegation of authority.
In particular, the board should delegate authority on matters where they don’t have the expertise, such as academic curricula and academic appointments. Some boards rubber stamp tenure recommendations, but in some cases, they don’t, like we saw in North Carolina and Texas. However, there must be an understanding with the board.
To me, shared governance works effectively when the board delegates certain authorities to the president, such as appointments to cabinets and, I would argue, even for tenure. But I understand it when some places would rather leave tenure appointments to the board.
However, the guiding principle has to be that for any major policy decision that affects one of the campus constituencies—such as faculty, staff, students, and, in some cases, all of them—the appropriate governance group in tier one must be consulted. Recommendations must also go to the president who then either acts on them or, if it is required, refines them so they’re appropriate for administrators and then takes these recommendations to the board who then acts upon it. Higher ed must always follow this pattern of consultation. That’s an effective shared governance system and, certainly, the way I’ve tried to operate in all of the places where I’ve had CEO responsibility for an institution.
Drumm McNaughton 18:03
That goes back to something you and I have spoken about before: the RACI model—responsible, accountable, consult, and inform. There are certain people who are responsible for certain decisions, who are accountable for making sure they get done, who must be consulted before decisions are made, and who must be informed after they are made.
Every constituency understanding what lane they’re traveling in at any given time is important. So what are some of the ongoing strategies a president should pursue to be successful?
Brit Kirwan 18:42
Let me mention several things. At the top or at least very on the list should be building a relationship of trust with the board, both collectively and individually. That probably sounds like a homily, but that takes hard work. I cannot tell you how much hard work that requires.
A president cannot be successful or build that kind of relationship with the board if the only interaction with the board is when there’s a committee meeting or a board meeting.
When I was at Ohio State, my staff that helped plan my schedule would build in a phone conversation with a board member every week. This would rotate through the board over the weeks where I would find out how they were doing and how things were going.
Did they have any thoughts or concerns? Did they want me to know about something? I don’t think a president should ever become friends with board members because there’s a relationship there. But we had a very collegial, warm, professional relationship. However, it took an enormous investment, time, and energy.
The second thing that is paramount is the board has to be kept informed on all matters. There can be no surprises. There’s nothing that board members should learn about by reading the newspaper. They must know upfront. You’ve seen, again and again, where that hasn’t occurred. That’s just so critically important.
Sometimes, when a person becomes president, there’s this sense that they’re supposed to be in charge of every conversation, come up with the ideas that are going to be implemented, and be the one who designs the vision and direction for the institution.
The really successful presidents are the ones who are accessible, visible, and good listeners. By good listener, I don’t mean someone who sits there while somebody talks for a while. What I mean by good listener is, even if you disagree with someone, you can still put yourself in their situation and fully understand why they hold that view. If you can do that, then you’re a good listener.
If you’re going to build consensus and have strong support over an extended period as a president or chancellor, the community must believe that they will be heard, that you will pay attention to what they have to say, and that even if you may not act on what they said, they will understand why you made your decision. Again, that takes an inordinate amount of time. You must be out and about on campus, willing to have meetings, and let people come into your office even when you’re ready to go home to listen and talk. It’s that kind of dynamic that can make for a very good president.
Drumm McNaughton 22:19
It’s a 24/7 job, is it not?
Brit Kirwan 22:22
It is. Yes. But there’s a flip side to being a good listener that makes an effective president, and that is being decisive. You can’t be wishy-washy. You’ve listened. You’ve consulted. But you have to make a decision and then hold to it. There’s a recent example that makes this point. I don’t want to pick on any particular institution because it’s a great institution and they have a very fine president. But in one instance at Northwestern, the president didn’t consult and wasn’t decisive. It had to do with a terrible scandal.
In regards to their intercollegiate athletics program, the president was under enormous pressure to take some kind of action. So he suspended the coach for a period of time. Maybe there was some financial arrangement. Well, there was egregious behavior within the football program that wasn’t going to fly. So a week later, the president comes back and fires the coach. If the president had taken a little more time and done a few more consultations, then it wouldn’t have looked like pressure caused the second decision to happen.
It’s also important for presidents to walk the walk and talk the talk. Your behavior as president must emulate the values you’re espousing for the institution. In these difficult financial times, sometimes boards will give presidents big salary increases or bonuses when other people aren’t getting raises. Presidents ought to walk away from that. You must live the values and practices that you are trying to preach to the institution.
Nobody wants to give bad news or admit a mistake. But, my goodness, it’s better to do that at the outset. Nip it in the bud and move on. It will just come back to haunt you if you try to paper it over or cover it up by not being completely candid. Those are a few things I’ve tried to live by during my roles as president and chancellor.
Drumm McNaughton 24:43
Those are really great things, and you’ve touched on a number of problems that can derail a presidency as well. So thank you. I am just amazed that the time has gone by way more quickly than I expected. To wrap up things, what would you say are three key takeaways for presidents and boards? How can we fix this shortened tenure or can we?
Brit Kirwan 25:16
It’s going to be difficult in the current political world we live in today. I’m going to cut my three down to two. The work and attention to building trust with the board, having a clear understanding of the role and responsibilities, using the best governance practices as the standard, and working to have that clear understanding is absolutely essential. This needs to be there from the get-go.
It needs to be part of the understanding when you become president and reinforced on a regular basis, through conversations, retreats, and whatever else with the board. The president can’t be effective unless they are seen as the operational executive for the institution without intrusion by the board. As soon as the board starts undercutting the president in anyway, the president loses credibility and effectiveness. Job one is to build that sense of trust and a clear understanding of the role and responsibilities.
The second is to build that trust and relationship with the university’s constituents, including alumni, donors, and most especially its faculty, staff, and students. Be visible, accessible, a good listener, candid, and forthright in all communications. If a president can accomplish these two things, they have a very good chance of having a long and successful tenure.
Drumm McNaughton 27:04
Very good. Thank you for those. Those are excellent. What’s next for you, besides us working together on more projects?
Brit Kirwan 27:13
Despite my advancing years, I still remain very involved in lots of ways. I do have a fair amount of consulting. I had the privilege of chairing a major commission for the state on reforming pre-K through 12 education. So I’ve now moved from higher education to preK-12.
You’re going backwards? Is that what you’re saying?
We have a grand plan in Maryland that’s been embraced by the General Assembly, and I’m on a board that’s overseeing the implementation of that. I’m also on the university’s hospital board. I’m enjoying that fairly. I’m now a board member and evaluating the CEO rather than being evaluated by board members. I’m enjoying that role. So I stay plenty, plenty busy and still find time to play a fair amount of tennis.
Drumm McNaughton 28:05
I don’t want to say “advanced years,” but for somebody like you being out on the courts four or five times a week and playing singles is quite the accomplishment.
Brit Kirwan 28:23
Well, I’m enjoying life. I had a great experience in higher education. I wouldn’t change my career path in any way, shape, or form. Though I’m in my sunset years, I’m still involved, engaged, and enjoying what I’m doing.
Drumm McNaughton 28:39
Very good. Another question for you. Are you going to go up to the US Open and watch some tennis this year?
Brit Kirwan 28:43
I have been there. I actually went last year to the French Open. Not as a player, though.
Drumm McNaughton 28:53
Not for the senior division?
Brit Kirwan 28:54
No, no. Not even that. But I did go to the French Open. I’ve been to Wimbledon, and the French and US Open. My bucket list has one more tick-off, the Australian.
Drumm McNaughton 29:04
Very good. Well, I wish you all the best of luck in getting there. And thank you so much for coming on the podcast. It’s been a real pleasure.
Drumm, it is always a joy to be with you.
Likewise, sir. Thank you. Thanks for listening. I’d also like to give a special thank you to our guest Dr. William “Brit” Kirwan for sharing his perspectives on presidential turnover and what can be done to change the trajectory of presidential tenure. Brit, thank you. It’s always a pleasure working with you and having you on the show.
Tune in next week as we welcome back Amy Privette Perko, CEO of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. She’ll be joining us to talk about NIHL conference realignment and what college presidents can do to influence the influx of big dollars into collegiate athletics. Thanks again for listening. See you next week.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Changing Higher Ed is produced and hosted by Dr. Drumm McNaughton. Post-production is by David L. White.