The presidential turnover crisis in higher education has seen university presidents’ tenures steadily diminishing for nearly two decades, now falling significantly short of the recommended ten-year benchmark. Just this past summer, a wave of major university presidents announced their resignations, departing well before their intended timelines.
Various higher education organizations have released independent reports on the rate of turnover, including three from the American Council on Education (ACE), as reported by Inside Higher Ed. ACE respondents stated the average tenure was 8.5 years in 2006, 6.5 years in 2016, and 5.9 years in 2023.
The decline in tenure is a cause for concern. Historically, high presidential turnover has had detrimental effects on academic institutions. When a president departs prematurely, it can leave the campus demoralized and often results in negative public relations. Furthermore, the process of identifying and appointing a new leader is time-consuming and demanding, leading to a period of institutional uncertainty, unfocused direction, and a growing list of unresolved challenges.
Examining Key Factors in Premature Presidential Resignations
Despite rising salaries and compensation, several factors contribute to the high turnover of university presidents. For instance, when the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, many institutions were unprepared to handle the complex challenges it presented, much like other industries.
Campus leaders were thrust into the role of finding rapid solutions to unprecedented problems, which proved overwhelming for many. As a result, some presidents stayed in their positions longer than anticipated because they didn’t want to leave their institutions in a bind. Now, many of these presidents are departing just as new challenges are emerging.
A clear instance of the emerging challenges can be observed in the case of New College of Florida, where the governor has appointed individuals with strong conservative affiliations to the board. This move appears to align with his presidential ambitions and an agenda characterized as “anti-WOKE.” It’s worth noting that a significant portion of this legislation has been declared unconstitutional, despite these appointments.
In numerous states, including Ohio, there is a growing trend of imposing restrictions on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives. These restrictions pose a substantial challenge for educational institutions that are committed to fostering inclusivity. Furthermore, they exert significant political pressure on university presidents, compelling them to align with the directives of politicians regarding the content of education and budget allocations.
This balancing act becomes even more complex as they endeavor to address the expectations of faculty members, a substantial portion of whom advocate for inclusivity within the curriculum and campus environment.
University presidents are grappling with an increasingly dire financial landscape, which is anticipated to worsen in the foreseeable future. A case in point is West Virginia University, which recently contended with a staggering $70 million deficit. To address this fiscal crisis, the university resorted to program cuts and reductions in faculty, actions that have had a detrimental impact on both faculty and student morale.
Additionally, university presidents find themselves compelled to allocate even more of their time to fundraising efforts, a task that was already demanding in its own right. Simultaneously, many presidents are working tirelessly to sustain their intercollegiate athletics programs, recognizing their significance as a primary revenue source for institutions.
The Impact of Board Dysfunction on Presidential Turnover
Boards have become overly politicized, i.e., boards are involving themselves far too greatly in operational issues. This significantly diminishes effective board governance. It also forces presidents to translate policy into operations when this role should be done by the board in parallel with the president.
Board dysfunction significantly contributes to the issue of presidential turnover. To illustrate this, consider the case of the University of Virginia a few years ago. In an unusual turn of events, the board chair instructed the president to announce her resignation during the morning board meeting without prior notification to the full board. Interestingly, it was the board chair, rather than the entire board, who sought the president’s resignation. Similarly, at Chapel Hill, the board declined to grant tenure to a highly distinguished journalist.
A much more well-known case involves a portion of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ lawsuit against the Department of Education, which challenges accreditation’s independent board policies on who owns colleges and universities. The lawsuit contends that public universities receive funding from and, consequently, are considered state-owned entities, granting local governments the authority to dictate the curricula and content taught at these institutions.
Those actions greatly diminish the independence of university boards, which was once respected and a point of pride for board members, and will likely do irreparable harm to the quality of higher education.
There is a common denominator in these examples – they are all public institutions where board members are appointed by the state governor or legislature. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to see how politics has affected presidential tenure.
What Higher Ed Must Change to Improve Presidential Retention
While there may be limited avenues for higher education to mitigate state government overreach, campus administrators and boards can improve the presidential onboarding process to select the most suitable leaders. The current procedure places significant reliance on in-person interviews, yet insufficient time and attention is given to these pivotal stages of onboarding.
Improve the Interview Process
The least effective examples involve holding just one interview that only allocates enough time for each board member—which normally consists of 15 to 20 minutes—to ask one question and the interviewee to provide brief answers. An obvious downside of only having one interview is that a perfect candidate could have an uncharacteristic off-day and be eliminated from the pool based on one bad performance.
Although interview processes are becoming longer and include multiple stakeholder groups, e.g., faculty, staff, students, and alumni, the board always makes the final decision in these cases. The board will, of course, listen to the recommendations and feedback from these other groups, but their own interview always serves as the main determining factor. The interview process must, therefore, not only be longer and consist of more than one interview but should delegate more responsibility and influence to other groups besides the board.
Candidates without Presidential Experience
Not all presidential candidates have experience in the executive office, which makes it imperative that institutions identify and adopt broader criteria on how to properly assess the potential effectiveness of candidates who have never served as a college or university president.
Many universities, particularly those in the public sector, favor provosts or those in similar capacities, but academics may not understand or have experience with additional aspects of the presidency, e.g., fundraising, facilities, etc. Thus, 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.
Here is the issue. There really isn’t another role like the president that involves serving as the face and voice of the institution in the public eye while advancing the institution. That is very hard to judge unless you’ve seen someone who has previously been in that role.
Limit Reliance on Search Consultants
Although search consultants play a valuable role in onboarding, universities and search committees rely too much on them. Oftentimes, university search committees take a more passive role until their consultants have identified a pool of candidates.
The most effective search committee members know the institution best and what it needs. They should be the primary or, at least, a major source of presidential candidates. Overreliance on search consultants frequently garners similar results to when governors or legislatures who don’t necessarily have the contacts or the broader higher education experience appoint board members, especially at public universities.
Remove Political Influence from the Search Process
Regrettably, the intrusion of politics has cast a shadow over presidential searches and tenures. Currently, institutions such as the University of Florida, New College of Florida, and the Georgia System are marked by political involvement, with only the University of Florida having any higher education experience. While this in itself may not be inherently problematic, the engagement of governors in the process has given rise to complications.
For instance, consider the case of Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen’s ill-fated presidency at the University of South Carolina. The governor of South Carolina endorsed Gen. Caslen, who was subsequently selected by the board. Despite his prior role as the Superintendent of West Point, Gen. Caslen’s tenure at USC lasted less than 21 months. In a post-departure interview, he expressed, “The biggest regret of my life is that I went to the University of South Carolina. If I had to do it all over again, I would never have gone to the University of South Carolina.”
Advice for Incoming Presidents Unfamiliar with Their New College Or University
It is important not only for the board and institution to better prepare themselves for onboarding leaders, but for new presidents hired or appointed externally to approach their new role responsibly. Most leaders in these situations come to an institution without prior knowledge of its culture or on-campus connections, and given the short interview process, they don’t learn this until onboard (which may be too late).
Presidents need to know who they trust or who will them the unvarnished truth to truly measure what the campus needs. One way to do this is for incoming presidents to identify a consultant or a fellow colleague with the right experience to interview as many people as possible from students up to the provost to become better informed about the culture, traditions, interests, challenges, and priorities of the institution.
To prevent board overreach and micromanaging, presidents must immediately identify, set up ground rules, and gain a very clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities with their board. This can be included in the buyout clause when creating the compensation contract. 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.
Presidents must also ensure the board has the same level of respect for shared governance when consulting with representative bodies. Presidents are constantly under pressure from their board and other external forces to take immediate actions or make quick decisions, but more and more, boards are ignoring or subrogating shared governance in lieu of rapid actions. Presidents must be allowed to refuse taking unilateral action, except in rare instances.
Strategies for Presidents to Guide Long-Term Success
At the top or, at least, very high on a list of successful strategies for presidents should be building a relationship of trust with the board, both collectively and individually. A president cannot be successful if their only interaction is during a committee or board meeting. Presidents can accomplish this by ensuring they have a rotating schedule with a different board member every week to check in and build relationships.
Clearly, presidents must keep the board informed on all matters so there are no surprises, and this is where building the relationship with the board members becomes critical. For example, board members should never learn about an action via the news. Nor should presidents be expected to participate in every conversation, come up with every idea, or design the vision and direction for the institution with no input.
Presidents must make themselves accessible and visible, and maintain a high level of emotional intelligence. This means that even if a president disagrees with someone, the president must put themselves in their situation and fully understand why that person holds that particular view. To build consensus and have a strong support system over an extended period, the community must believe that they are heard and that they understand why a decision was made, especially if they don’t agree with it.
Presidents must be decisive. After consulting and listening to others, presidents must make a decision and stick to it.
Presidents must live and lead by example. The behavior of every president must emulate the values they espouse for the institution. For example, presidents must reject big salary increases or bonuses when others aren’t receiving raises.
Presidents must always be candid at the onset of a mistake or whenever there’s bad news. Attempting to cover anything up will cause more trouble than admitting anything immediately.
To address high presidential turnover, boards must realize that presidents can only be effective if they’re seen as the operational executive for the institution, and they can’t be overly intrusive to presidential actions. As soon as the board starts undercutting the president, the president loses credibility and effectiveness.
For incoming presidents, build trust and a strong relationship with the university’s constituents, including alumni, donors, and, most especially, its faculty, staff, and students. Be visible, accessible, emotionally intelligent, candid, and forthright in all communications. If boards and presidents can adhere to these strategies, there’s a high probability the president will have a long and successful tenure.