Unsuccessful searches for university presidents are now commonplace. This has happened at Evergreen State, New Mexico, and Wisconsin, among other institutions. We have also seen a succession of very short-lived presidencies, at universities like Auburn, Central Florida, Colorado, Louisville, Oklahoma, Oregon State, Tulsa and Wyoming, no doubt in part because that fewer presidents are hired without sufficient vetting or due diligence or input from faculty and students. At the same time, presidential turnover has intensifiedwith 123 resigning in 2019 and 107 in 2021.
Considering salary, benefits, and prestige, there is no shortage of candidates for college president. But finding an effective president who can navigate the choppy waters of the academy is difficult. Finding a leader who can inspire or strengthen an institution is even more difficult. Someone who can speak effectively on behalf of higher education? Not impossible (think Michael Sorrell), but extremely difficult.
There was a time in my living memory when there were a number of university presidents who led public intellectuals and spokespersons for higher education as a whole, such as Derek Bok, William Bowen and Kingman Brewster , or their very famous (or maligned) predecessors: James Conant, Charles Eliot, Daniel Coit Gilman, William Rainey Harper, Robert Maynard Hutchins, David Starr Jordan and Clark Kerr.
I am not thinking here simply of really effective presidents like Mark Becker, Leon Botstein, Julieta Garcia, John Hennessy, Freeman Hrabowski, Renu Khator, Diana Natalicio, Carol Quillen, Rafael Reif, Ruth Simmons and Adam S. Weinberg, who have transformed their well-deserved institutions, or the current or recent generation of much talked about higher education innovators, like Joseph E. Aoun, Michael Crow, Mitch Daniels, Paul LeBlanc, Michael Sorrell and Scott Pulsipher, who have certainly left an indelible mark on their institutions and on the higher education landscape, or those, like Bill Powers and Teresa A. Sullivan, propelled into the news by various campus controversies.
Certainly, some current or recent presidents are genuine public intellectuals, including Drew Gilpin Faust, John Kroger, Brian Rosenberg, Michael S. Roth and Lawrence Summers. But it’s hard to find figures of the stature or public recognition of the 3 Big Bs of higher education: Bok, Bowen and Brewster.
why is this the case?
Certainly, part of the explanation lies in the diminishing respect for leaders of all kinds. Media coverage of higher education rarely features campus presidents except in cases of scandal or controversy. It is extremely rare to see university presidents portrayed as visionaries, agents of change or creative thinkers.
This is partly because fewer university presidents are academics who established an academic reputation before taking on leadership positions and who have continued to speak about higher education even after retirement. Most college presidents who rose through the ranks made a name for themselves not as scholars but as administrators, usually as provosts or deans.
These days, a background in law or politics is neither uncommon nor surprising, given the thorny legal issues that many campuses face, such as those involving labor relations or sexual assault, and circumspection seems to be ingrained in the DNA of many of these former lawyers. or law professors.
Given the reliance of public institutions on the largesse of state legislatures, it’s no surprise that many campuses have chosen a former politician as president, Ben Sasse of Florida being the latest example.
In a thoughtful opinion piece from 2017 in The Washington Post, the prolific higher education observer Jeffrey J. Selingo has argued persuasively that the example of the contemporary college president is the corporate CEO, with all that that entails. Today’s CEO is less likely to be a diva, a scene-stealer or a charismatic leader in the manner of Elon Musk or Steve Jobs than a cautious, carefully guarded and focused, willing civil servant or apparatchik to avoid controversy at all costs.
Such a model of university presidency certainly makes sense, given the size of institutional budgets, the range of duties and responsibilities of a college or university, and the fallout from any missteps. Better, think a lot, cultivate allies, stay under the radar screen, focus on fundraising, and talk pablum than risk causing a firestorm.
Not surprisingly, college presidencies have become shorter over time, currently averaging less than six years, down from more than eight as recently as 2006. After all, the job itself has become more challenging, with primary responsibilities of fundraising, crisis management, worrying about rankings, revenue, and registrations, and hiring subordinates to handle day-to-day matters regarding admissions, athletics, budgets , programs, research and technology, among others. The lack of deference from alumni, faculty, students, local and state officials, and journalists makes matters even more difficult. Presidents are more accountable to a host of stakeholders, who expect a much higher level of accountability and responsiveness than in the past.
That said, I have seen up close a handful of university presidents who are truly transformational leaders. We might ask ourselves: what do figures such as Michael Crow, Freeman Hrabowski, Renu Khator and Michael Sorrell have in common?
First, the view. This vision can be very ambitious, for example, becoming a Tier 1 research institution and adding a medical school, or more focused: dramatically increasing the number of underrepresented students entering STEM fields. But either way, it’s an inspiring vision that excites a campus’ sense of mission. Faculty members come to recognize that their stature benefits when the reputation of their institution improves.
Second, fundraising acumen. The key: a vision that proves to be contagious, which arouses the enthusiasm of donors, foundations and legislators. Targeted investments can, in turn, pay off and inspire faculty to apply for institutional grants that can transform an institution.
Third, partners. Presidential success depends on allies and comrades-in-arms who share a common vision and sense of mission and who have the ability to execute and deliver. High-performing chairs identify, support, and showcase faculty innovators and show a willingness to share the credit.
The most effective presidents aren’t just gatekeepers. They have a unique ability to inspire, motivate and generate excitement, to create a sense of urgency as well as a sense of possibility. The best ones I’ve met aren’t nice in the conventional sense: they’re pushy and assertive, determined and decisive, ambitious and daring, with extraordinarily high expectations. But they also delegate authority to their lieutenants (and fire them without a second thought if they fail).
Over a long college career, I’ve discovered that leadership is more important than I imagined when I was wet behind my ears. I have seen bad leaders – who were self-centered or indecisive, who communicated poorly and were unable to resolve conflict – and the damage they can inflict on faculty and staff morale. But I also saw the accomplishments effective leaders can achieve.
Publilius Syrus, a slave and contemporary of Cicero who later became a writer of Latin maxims, wrote: “Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm. So true. Today’s high seas are anything but smooth; they are jerky or worse, and strategic vision is key.
So heed the words of Peter Drucker, the management consultant: “Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked; leadership is defined by results, not attributes.
Steven Mintz is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.