Searches for failed college presidents are now commonplace. It happened at the Evergreen State, New Mexico and Wisconsin, among other institutions. We’ve also seen a succession of extremely short-term presidents, including Auburn, Central Florida, Colorado, Louisville, Oklahoma, Oregon State, Tulsa and Wyoming, because few presidents are hired without adequate vetting or due diligence. or teacher and student input. At the same time, presidential turnover has increased, with 123 resignations announced in 2019 and 107 in 2021.
In terms of pay, benefits and prestige, there is no shortage of candidates for college presidents. But finding an effective president who can navigate the rough waters of academia is difficult. It is more difficult to find a leader who will inspire or strengthen an institution. Is there anyone who can speak effectively on behalf of higher education? Not impossible (think Michael Sorrell), but very difficult.
There have been several college presidents in my lifetime who have been public intellectuals and spokespeople for higher education in general, such as Derek Bock, William Bowen, and Kingman Brewster. ) predecessors: James Conant, Charles Elliott, Daniel Coit Gilman, William Rennie Harper, Robert Maynard Hutchins, David Starr Jordan, and Clark Kerr.
I am thinking here of authors such as Mark Baker, Leon Botstein, Julieta Garcia, John Hennessy, Freeman Hrabowski, Renu Cator, Diana Natalicio, Carol Quillen, Raphael Rieff, Ruth Simmons, and Adam S. I simply don’t think of effective presidents like Weinberg. Institutions deserve a lot of credit, or the highly knowledgeable innovators in the news, such as Joseph E. Owen, Michael Crowe, Mitch Daniels, Paul LeBlanc, Michael Sorrell, and Scott Pulsifer, on their institutions and the landscape of higher education, or Bill Powers and Teresa A. Sullivan’s various campus controversies have left an indelible mark on the news.
To be sure, there are some current or recent presidents who are true public intellectuals, including Drew Gilpin Fast, John Kroeger, Brian Rosenberg, Michael S. Roth, and Lawrence Summers. But it’s hard to find portraits or public recognition of the top 3 Big Bs: Bock, Bowen and Brewster.
Why is this happening?
Certainly, part of the explanation is declining respect for leaders of all kinds. Only rarely does higher education media coverage feature campus presidents unless there is scandal or controversy. It’s rare to see a college president seen as a visionary, a change agent, or an innovative thinker.
In part, that’s because few college presidents are academics who have amassed a scholarly reputation before stepping into leadership positions and who continue to speak about higher education long after they retire from office. Most college presidents rose through the ranks not as academics but as administrators, typically provosts or deans.
These days, a legal or political history is not unusual or surprising given the vast array of legal issues facing many campuses, such as labor relations or sexual assault, and control seems to be embedded in the DNA of most former attorneys. Law professors.
Given public institutions’ heavy reliance on state legislatures, it’s not surprising that many campuses have elected a former politician as president, Florida’s Ben Sasse being the latest example.
In the thoughtful 2017 comment section The Washington PostJeffrey J. Selingo, a prominent higher education observer, has persuasively argued that the current university president is the epitome of a corporate CEO. Today’s CEO is less likely to be a diva, scene stealer or charismatic leader along the lines of Elon Musk or Steve Jobs.
Such a model of the university president certainly makes sense given the size of the institutional budget, the scope of the college or university’s functions and responsibilities, and any missteps. Many think, to make partners, stay under the radar screen, focus on fundraising, and instead of starting fires, say Pablo.
It’s no surprise that the tenure of college presidents is getting shorter and shorter, now averaging less than 6 years, up from more than 8 as recently as 2006. After all, the job itself has become harder, raising money, managing crises, worrying about grades and revenue and enrollment, and hiring subordinates to handle the day-to-day issues of admissions, athletics, budgets, curriculum, research and technology, and other issues. What makes the issue even more challenging is the lack of respect for alumni, faculty, students, local and regional office holders and journalists. Presidents are more responsive to multiple stakeholders who expect greater levels of accountability and responsibility than in the past.
All that said, I’ve seen a few college presidents who were truly transformational leaders, recently. We might ask: What do people like Michael Crowe, Freeman Hrabowski, Renu Kator, and Michael Sorel have in common?
First, vision. That vision can be 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 in any case, it’s an inspiring sight that evokes a campus sense of mission. Faculty recognize that their institution’s reputation benefits them.
Second, the ability to raise revenue. The key: a vision that proves contagious, generating enthusiasm among donors, foundations and lawmakers. Targeted investments, in turn, can produce significant results and lead faculty to pursue institutional grants that can transform the institution.
Third, partners. Presidential success depends on allies and partners who share a common vision and sense of mission. The most successful presidents identify, support and showcase faculty innovators and demonstrate a willingness to share credit.
The most effective presidents are not just caretakers. They have a unique ability to motivate, inspire and generate enthusiasm — to inspire a sense of urgency as well as a sense of possibility. The best I’ve encountered are not conventionally good: pushy and determined, determined and determined, ambitious and bold – with unusually high expectations. But they delegate authority to their lieutenants (and if they fail to do so, they fire them without a second thought).
In my long career in education, I have learned that leadership is needed more than ever when I was wet behind the ears. I’ve seen bad leaders — those who are self-centered or indecisive, who don’t communicate well and can’t resolve conflicts — and the damage they do to faculty and staff morale. But I have also seen the successes that effective leaders can achieve.
“When the sea is calm,” wrote Publius Cyrus, a contemporary of Cicero’s slave and writer of Latin maxims, “any man may take the helm.” How true it is. Today the elevated beaches are smooth; They are brutal or worse, and a strategic view is essential.
So heed the words of management consultant Peter Drucker: “Effective leadership is not about talking or being liked. Leadership is defined by attributes, not results.
Steven Mintz is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.