Leadership Crack-ups

A surprising number of college and university presidents depart unexpectedly or face turmoil that nearly ends their tenure as president. Within the past six months, leaders of Illinois State, St. Augustine’s, the University of Wyoming, Tuskegee University, Howard University, and SUNY-Upstate Medical University have resigned under pressure.

In Presidencies Derailed, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg and his colleagues document 25 additional “derailments” or near-derailments, all of which occurred in one year, 2009. Some took place at high-profile schools such as Brandeis,Texas A & M, The New School, and North Carolina State.

Trachtenberg et al. think that the cause of abrupt presidential departures often lies with the board of trustees. The selection process is conducted with rose-colored glasses and then the board vacillates when challenges arise. For example:

  • Horace Judson, president of Grambling State University, resigned in 2009 after claims of mishandled funds. That was six years after he had resigned from Plattsburg State University following a no-confidence vote by the faculty. Was the board wise to select him in the first place?
  • Michael Garrison, the young and business-like president of West Virginia University from 2007 to 2008, faced two crises in his first year—alumni anger because he sued a former coach and media publicity claiming he had favored the governor’s daughter with a degree she didn’t deserve. He argued that the latter was a sham. Should the board have believed him and defended him?

The authors paint a picture of boards of trustees as somewhat naïve and even bungling entities. They are “leadership teams that, in athletic parlance, play but rarely practice—convening infrequently for the game time of board meetings,” the authors say.

Stephen Trachtenberg is himself a very successful president, having served as president of George Washington University for 19 years and president of the University of Hartford for eleven years before that. Located in the heart of Washington, D.C., George Washington has what all university leaders want these days: growing revenue, a rising reputation, and no embarrassing publicity. (It is the fourth most expensive university in the country.)

His coauthors are Gerald N. Kauvar, a professor of public policy at George Washington, and E. Grady Bogue, former chancellor of Louisiana State University in Shreveport.

So they know something about presidents and boards.

Presidencies go off the tracks for several reasons, the authors explain. Some derailments reflect personal failings—ethical lapses such as romantic dalliances or traits such as “arrogant attitudes, volatile tempers, and weak communication skills.”

A larger number of presidents simply aren’t leaders and can’t create good relationships with key constituents like faculty and legislators. Others don’t adjust to the nature of the institution, and some fail to get the school’s financial house in order (or make it worse).

In these and other cases, the board may be largely responsible—both through the selection process and through trustees’ neglect, especially during the new president’s “honeymoon” period.

The authors discuss the search process at length, but they don’t hold out great hopes for perfecting it. They admit that good selection depends on luck and they modestly observe that even following their recommendations is not a “guaranteed path to success.” (Their discussion of the search process is titled “Averting the Train Wreck.”)

The board of trustees is so much of the problem that the authors think that before a board goes looking for a leader, it should investigate itself—“evaluate its own structure, operations, and performance as part of the institutional leadership structure.” It should use an outside consultant and, if warranted, change practices before the search begins.

Searches can go awry in many ways.

Too often, the search begins with too-high hopes—“self-delusion.” Boards think that they can find the best possible person for the job. They should be much less ambitious, the authors say, and just try to find someone who can do the job well.

Then, search committees are often selected for “demographic optics”—that is, they include a diverse array of university “stakeholders” such as faculty, alumni, even students. In assessing candidates, those stakeholders tend to reflect the interests of their supporters. The result may be settling on a candidate who offends no one.

Frequently board members don’t agree on what the job entails. They put together a job description that is “generic, rather than specific.”

Trachtenberg et al. believe that each school has its own “institutional realities and aspirations”—that is, unique problems and unique hopes for solving them. Those distinctive characteristics should guide the selection of the next president but often they do not. Sometimes boards are too caught up in their own interests (and conflicts of interest) to see what makes the organization unique.

Added to that ignorance is “groupthink.” Members find they are more comfortable when they are in agreement. Under pressure to start reducing the pool of what could be fifty plausible candidates, the group may start eliminating candidates prematurely.

So the authors offer specific suggestions.

  • Searchers should “shed the Panglossian notion that they will find the best of all presidents for their institution.” They should concentrate on finding the best of the available lot through hard work and careful study. They should not expect too much.
  • Committees should be small and “comprised of individuals with experience in senior level hiring decisions.” While the process should have “inclusive representation of campus stakeholders” (e.g., faculty, students, alumni) those stakeholders should not serve on the committee.
  • At the very least, there should be “consensus around essential and desirable characteristics” of the next president.
  • The committee should dig deep to detect personal failings. “[T]he more information a search committee can harvest about a candidate’s interpersonal skills, the better.” That may require campus visits and listening to gossip—without accepting everything heard at face value, of course.
  • Investigation should go beyond personal character to understand the “leadership style” of each candidate. The selected person’s style should be “well-suited to the culture and context of the institution.”

Once the candidate is chosen, boards frequently leave some loose ends, such as not clarifying the role of the spouse. In three of the 25 derailments in 2009, actions by the president’s wife contributed to the turmoil. Other lapses include failing to clarify the boundary between the president’s and the board’s role and failing to fully inform the candidate of the school’s financial status.

And even if all these loose ends are tied up, there is one more task: smoothing the transition.

A critical part of the board’s job is to help the new person settle into the position. The authors go so far as to suggest that the board give the president some discretionary money to satisfy requests from “stakeholders,” especially faculty. Such a discretionary fund underscores the fact that transition can be difficult, especially when the new president follows a popular long-time leader.

In sum, there are too many “derailed presidencies,” and trustees need to make sure theirs isn’t one of them.