The Impact of Presidential Migration
Raising questions about presidential tenure in higher education
By Ann Korschgen, Rex Fuller, and John Gardner

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?
The American Council on Education (ACE) has been studying the trends regarding terms of presidential leadership for more than a decade and a half. A recent ACE study cited in the Chronicle of Higher Education (September 15, 2000) reported that the average length of presidential tenure for a doctoral-granting institution was 6.9 years, up from 6.3 years in 1986.

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:

  • "Meaningful change in a campus culture occurs only with presidencies of long duration. Other changes that aren’t institutionalized are ephemeral. We deal with a lot of short-term issues. A president must have a vision and understand that change is built on the strengths of the institution. I have yet to see an institution that has made long-standing change through quantum leaps. The only exception is with big money in a short time with new people."
  • "Making change requires ‘seed planting’ that one must continue to nurture. You need time to persuade and inform. You come back with a different iteration if it doesn’t pass the first time."
  • "I have moved in a steady direction, creating a vision that makes sense to the constituencies. The place develops because people hang in there."
  • "To conduct an effective planning process, you need to know the institution intimately."
  • "Significant change doesn’t happen in a year or two. I was involved in two major reforms — one that took seven years and one that took six years. The president needs time."

Long-term presidents are generally more adept at handling institutional difficulties and making better decisions.

  • Long-term presidents "know the actors in the drama of their institution, and thus don’t go through charades."
  • "Short-term presidents can misread cues during a time of crisis and go down the pathway they don’t want to go down."
  • "Presidents need to identify with the institution and subject themselves to the same risks to which everyone else is subjected."

Long-term presidents have time to build an effective leadership team and to develop strong relationships with alumni, legislators, donors, and community leaders.

  • "It takes time to engage in transformational change and to build a team."
  • "Long-term presidents develop specific knowledge that is essential, such as knowing the systems, the decision-making processes, the alumni, and the legislature."

Long-term presidents recognize that being effective means evolving and changing with the job.

  • "I had ‘different jobs’ all the time É being president brought different challenges."
  • "One needs to keep assessing [one’s approach] because at different times, institutions need different kinds of leadership."
  • "One needs to have five or six different presidents, but one job [and one person]."
  • "I am in the process of reinventing my own excitement as president."

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
But what happens when a president leaves too soon?

A number of those with whom we talked indicated that short-term presidencies might cause enormous disruption and problems for the institution:

  • "One of the most destructive things that happens to institutions is to go through numerous short-term presidencies. It doesn’t allow the institution to settle down. The focus is on the wrong place — how to solve internal bickering due to changes in leadership — and yet the focus needs to be on the outside."
  • "Short-term presidencies can create a lot of pain. Anytime there are dreams unfulfilled, there is a lot of pain, both institutional and personal."
  • "Frequently changing leadership brings a different frame of reference to the institution. This is problematic because presidents shouldn’t dismantle what has been done."
  • "The president who leaves every five years encourages short-term thinking [on the part of some faculty members]: 'We can wait this person out.’"
  • Short-term presidencies "sap the energy of the faculty and administration."

Retention Strategies
Should we try to slow the revolving door? Here are the suggestions that we heard:

Address the issue of how public boards can make the presidency problematic.

  • "Public board members are appointed to represent some constituency — by contrast private board members have only one purpose — to serve the institution well. Private boards are tougher, but also more supportive."

Address the effectiveness of the presidential search and screening processes.

  • "You need to make certain there is a fit at the outset. I have observed a lot of colleagues who took a presidency that wasn’t a good fit in the beginning."
  • "Presidents shouldn’t want the job so badly that they say in the interview what they think people want to hear. There needs to be a fit. You need to know as much about the situation prior to going there. You may get the job and lose your soul. One has to decide if that is the right place for you."
  • "Hiring a president is a ‘get-acquainted process.’ Boards in private universities want a leader for a long time, for 10 years. Everyone would have a sense that if a president hadn’t stayed as long, things wouldn’t have been accomplished."

Change the prevailing ethic that one must move on to build one’s career.

  • "I think that most people see staying at one place as a problem: ‘If you want to move your career along, you have to move.’"

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:

  • What is the history of presidential longevity at your institution? What patterns do you observe?
  • Are there common or exceptional forces at work that shape the tenure of your most senior leader?
  • Has your institution been better served or less well served by the pattern that you observe?
  • What have been your president’s accomplishments since taking office and over what periods during the presidency?
  • What have been the terms of office of your presidents since the chartering of your institution?
  • What have been the terms since the midpoint of the last century (1950)?
  • Who decides on the longevity of your president?
  • Are you, individually, and institutionally, better off than you were when your current president assumed office? And by what criteria? (For example, enrollment numbers; financial viability; academic standards; rankings of your institution; state accountability measures; performance of the endowment; success of a capital campaign; level of campus consensus versus conflict; reviews by accreditation bodies; acceptance levels and respect for key personnel appointments made by the president; town-gown relationships; relationships with legislatures, alumni, faculty, unions, students; strategic planning goals set and accomplished; trustworthiness; and general enthusiasm.)

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 started our work on the issue of presidential longevity thinking we would conclude with some definitive answers. Instead, we have found ourselves with more questions than before. But we believe our questions are those about which members of the academic community need to more intentionally join their governing boards and each other in asking. And as authors, who are ourselves products of a good liberal arts education, we write recognizing that the questions are often more important than the answers.

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

Rex Fuller is dean of the Hasan School of Business at the University of Southern Colorado. Contact him at

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

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