The Impact of Presidential Migration
From the February 2001 AAHE Bulletin
Is the fact that many presidents serve less time at a single institution than the probationary periods for most of our untenured assistant professors a good thing? And by what criteria do we decide?
The striking contrast between the length of service of seasoned faculty and that of senior administrators often creates the faculty attitude that "If we wait a while, he (or she) [the administrator in question] and his (or her) new initiatives will be gone." Has there developed a nationally mobile "guild" of higher education administrators whose loyalty is to the profession of administration and not to the individual campuses where they may be temporarily employed? If that is the case, is the guild mentality of career administrators serving the best interests of higher education?
Our questions are stimulated by several coincidences. First of all, two of us (Fuller and Korschgen) investigated the issue of planning and innovation in higher education (see "Institutional Planning that Makes a Difference," AAHE Bulletin, April 2000). We entered the research with a basic assumption that frequent turnover in campus leadership positions was a normal, expected, and value-neutral event. But in the course of the research, we discovered that institutions that had been identified as "innovative" had an average presidential tenure of about 13 years, approximately double that of the current average presidential term of service.
To pursue this issue, we interviewed 20 current or former college presidents (who were not a part of our original study on planning and innovation) to gain their perspectives on presidential leadership and longevity. These presidents had tenures that ranged from four to 30 years, with the average of 13 years, and they served at public and private institutions across the country. We selected these presidents based upon an informal process by which their peers identified them as effective leaders. We also interviewed a number of other higher education observers and scholars, including our third author, John Gardner. Gardner immediately challenged us with his assumption that on balance, relatively short tenures were not beneficial for American colleges and universities. We invited Gardner to join us in exploring this fundamental question from a variety of additional new perspectives.
Why Is Longevity Important?
While there has been a slight increase in the average tenure for these institutions, the fact still remains that there are many short-term presidencies in higher education. We wonder about the effects of these presidencies upon institutional quality, faculty and staff morale, and upon the overall health and vitality of the institution. In short, does presidential longevity matter, and if so, why?
In our discussions with higher education experts and university presidents we heard a number of arguments for the importance of long-term presidents.
Here is what we heard:
Long-term presidents are best equipped to help change a campus culture.
Statements that supported this assertion included:
Long-term presidents are generally more adept at handling institutional difficulties and making better decisions.
Long-term presidents have time to build an effective leadership team and to develop strong relationships with alumni, legislators, donors, and community leaders.
Long-term presidents recognize that being effective means evolving and changing with the job.
Does this mean that we heard that a president should never leave? Hardly. Some presidents with whom we spoke made comments about the conditions that signal when it is time to go. These include presidential complacency or boredom when the experience for the leader has become a "sucked orange," or when the leader "does the same things over and over." Other conditions that signal time for a change are when a leader becomes "unwilling to hold others accountable"; when he or she "has exhausted political capital and is unable to effect change"; or "when the institution stops developing or growing."
Perils of the Revolving Door
A number of those with whom we talked indicated that short-term presidencies might cause enormous disruption and problems for the institution:
Address the issue of how public boards can make the presidency problematic.
Address the effectiveness of the presidential search and screening processes.
Change the prevailing ethic that one must move on to build one’s career.
Examine how professional organizations might address the longevity issue.
Change contracts from year-to-year to multiyear.
Searching for Answers
We believe it is premature to draw any conclusions without a further dialogue on the issue of presidential longevity, but we have some concluding perspectives. One is that we found echoes of the same theme regarding the importance of longevity in a study of visionary companies in business. In their book Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, authors James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras write that it was "not the quality of leadership that most separates the visionary companies from the comparison companies. It is the continuity of quality leadership that matters — continuity that preserves the core."
In fact, the authors continue, "nearly all of the key early architects in the visionary companies remained in office for long periods of time (32.4 years on average)."
Does this study of visionary companies have any relevance for higher education?
Another observation is that few profound changes are made overnight in higher education, and when changes do occur, it is by consensus building, not by fiat. Are those with whom we talked correct in contending that those presidents with longevity are better able to orchestrate these changes? With shorter tenure of presidents, there is pressure to do things quickly — to demonstrate "leadership" by changing structure, policies, or other features — that may have minimal long-term impact on the quality of the institution.
With these observations in mind, we turn to your particular institution with some specific questions that you might ask regarding your presidential leadership:
We anticipate there may be counter arguments for every one we heard that supported the importance of longevity. That is why we believe it is so important to hear from you.
What Are Your Thoughts?
We also write to stimulate a dialogue, which we begin in this publication and want to continue via email and at the session we will conduct at AAHE’s National Conference, March 24–27 in Washington, DC.
Ann Korschgen is vice provost for enrollment Management at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rex Fuller is dean of the Hasan School of Business at the University of Southern Colorado. Contact him at email@example.com.
John Gardner is Distinguished Professor of Educational Leadership and executive director of the Policy Center on the First Year of College at Brevard College, North Carolina and senior fellow of the University of South Carolina National Resource Center for the First Year Experience and Students in Transition. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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