The Shrinking University Leader: Steps to Avoid Failed Searches and Premature Departures
The positions of university president, provost or vice president are historically among the most highly sought and prestigious among professions. Yet today, many well-qualified candidates for university leadership are having second thoughts. According to a Chronicle of Higher Education survey, hiring is more difficult than ever for institutions.
To be certain, the pandemic presented unprecedented challenges for university leaders just as it did for those in business, industry and government. Likewise, presidents and their teams today face intense scrutiny across political, cultural and economic fronts on issues removed from an institution’s core mission and for which an academic career does not prepare them to navigate. Both contribute to the stress on those in leadership now and depress the appetite of other would-be leaders.
Yet, the failure of many institutions in strategically searching for and onboarding new leaders and periodically assessing their performance is an overlooked cause of the higher ed leadership vacuum. Among root causes of the shrinking university leader, this is the one most easily addressed yet most regularly unperformed. Consequently, colleges and universities are facing premature departures of their leaders, usually presidents and chancellors, damaging the institution financially and reputationally.
Leading a college or university is personally and professionally rewarding. Helping people reach their hopes and dreams is a goal worthy of our best and brightest. Yet despite this sense of purpose, along with relatively strong compensation and benefits, a growing number of chancellors and presidents are stepping down while others are forced out under a cloud of controversy.
Bloomberg recently described a “retirement wave.” At the same time, according to a study from the American Council on Education, the average college president tenure decreased by two years.
While some are legitimate retirements after long careers, others are cut short well before completion of the leader’s appointment. The University of Tulsa let go of its president after only 74 days in 2012. After less than six months, the University of Wyoming forced out its president in 2013. In 2019, the president at the University of Oklahoma departed after 11 months. The University of Wisconsin System’s search in 2020 failed when the lone finalist dropped out, blaming “process issues.” Last year, the Oregon State University president left after nine months.
There are more examples, but you get the picture. In each instance, the institution was forced to conduct another costly search. The dollars multiplied for some schools that added six or seven figure payouts to the departing president. Reputational damages are typically greater than financial ones.
Costly, premature turnover among college leadership and the reluctance of qualified candidates to pursue these critical roles are problems institutions can solve. We recommend three prescriptions that work to prevent failed searches and realize the many benefits of successful, stable leadership.
Strengthen the Search Process
Institutions typically hire a search firm to identify qualified candidates, conduct initial screening and evaluate each person’s strengths and weaknesses. But governing boards often overlook key steps to ensure the search is above reproach. In just one example, if the process is not seen as transparent, open and inclusive, the candidate selected, regardless of qualifications, will lack legitimacy in the eyes of some stakeholders. The premature departure of numerous presidents can be traced to a flawed search process. A search must meet specific criteria for all campus constituencies to deem it fully legitimate.
Most campuses believe the job is finished when the president or other leader is selected, assuming their skills and expertise will transfer to any institution. This flawed thinking views onboarding as providing an employee ID and benefits briefing, not a strategic process to ensure success.
Every school has unique traditions, history, values and cultures. The real job is aligning the governing board and new leader, especially on the little things. Expectations will vary, sometimes dramatically, on issues large and small, ranging from communication with faculty and staff and use of the president’s home to role in donor development and athletic decision-making.
Effective onboarding also includes engagement, prior to arriving on campus, with certain alumni or business and government officials. New leaders must likewise strategically design their first day, week and month in office. The message sent about priorities during these initial meetings and activities is long remembered.
Personnel evaluations are a sound management practice, regardless of industry or position, so everyone understands the definition of success.
A credible assessment is honest and candid, but many in higher ed are not. They should include, at minimum, interviews with direct reports and board members and an examination of the campus climate as well as constructive recommendations, such as executive coaching or training in crisis management.
Instability in higher-ed leadership is here to stay if institutions conduct business as usual. Colleges and universities can reverse the trend, avoid the consequences and gain from leadership stability when they adopt deliberate and intentional strategies.