Weather Presidency of the College or University | Within higher education

Failed searches for university presidents are now common. It happened in Evergreen State, New Mexico, and Wisconsin, among other institutions. We’ve also seen a succession of very short-lived presidents, at universities including Auburn, Central Florida, Colorado, Louisville, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tulsa and Wyoming, undoubtedly partly due to fewer presidents being appointed without adequate vetting or due diligence. or faculty and student. At the same time, presidential turnover has intensified, with 123 quits in 2019 and 107 in 2021.

Considering wages, benefits, and prestige, there is no shortage of candidates for college presidency. But finding an effective chief who can navigate the rough waters of the academy is difficult. Finding a leader who can inspire or strengthen an organization is even more difficult. Someone who can speak effectively on behalf of higher education? It’s not impossible (think Michael Sorrell), but it’s incredibly difficult.

There was a time, in my living memory, when there were a number of university presidents who were leading public thinkers and spokespeople for higher education as a whole, such as Derek Bock, William Bowen, and Kingman Brewster, who were often celebrated (or mistreated). Their ancestors: James Conant, Charles Elliott, Daniel Coit Gilman, William Rainey Harper, Robert Maynard Hutchins, David Starr Jordan, and Clark Kerr.

I’m not simply thinking here of really influential chiefs like Mark Baker, Leon Botstein, Julieta Garcia, John Hennessy, Freeman Hrabowski, Reno Kator, Diana Natalesio, Carol Quillen, Rafael Reeve, Ruth Simmons, and Adam S. Their institutions have received much acclaim, or the current or recent group of highly educated innovators who frequently share in the news, such as Joseph E. On, Michael Crowe, Mitch Daniels, Paul LeBlanc, Michael Sorrell and Scott Pulsevier, who have certainly left an indelible mark on their institutions And on the higher education scene, or those, like Bill Powers and Teresa A. Sullivan, who pushed in the news through various controversies on campus.

To be sure, there are some current or new chiefs who are true public thinkers, including Drew Gilpin Faust, John Krueger, Brian Rosenberg, Michael S. Roth, and Lawrence Summers. But it’s hard to find numbers for prestige or general recognition for 3 Big Bs from higher departments: Bok, Bowen and Brewster.

Why is this the case?

Certainly, part of the explanation lies in the decline in respect for leaders of all kinds. Media coverage of higher education rarely shows campus presidents except in cases of scandal or controversy. It is very rare to see a college president portrayed as visionaries, change agents, or creative thinkers.

This is partly because fewer university presidents are academics who built a scholarly reputation before taking on leadership positions and who continued to talk about higher education even after they retired from their positions. Most college presidents who rose through the ranks made their reputations not as scholars but as administrators, usually as dean or dean.

These days, a background in law or politics is not uncommon or surprising given the fraught legal issues many campuses face, such as those related to work relationships or sexual assault, and caution appears to be embedded in the DNA of many of these former attorneys or professors Law.

With public institutions dependent on the generosity of state legislatures, it is not surprising that many universities have chosen a former politician as president, the latest example being Ben Sassi of Florida.

In a thoughtful opinion article in 2017, in Washington PostJeffrey J. Selingo, a prolific observer of higher education, has argued persuasively that the ideal of a contemporary university president is the CEO of the company, with all that implies. Today’s CEO is less likely to be a singer, scene thief, or charismatic leader like Elon Musk or Steve Jobs than a cautious, focused employee or a macho, eager to avoid controversy at all costs.

Such a model of university presidency certainly makes sense, with the size of institutional budgets, the scope of the functions and responsibilities of a college or university, and the ramifications of any slips. Many believe it’s better to make allies, stay under the radar, focus on fundraising, and speak up rather than risk unleashing a firestorm.

Not surprisingly, the university presidency has been shorter over time, currently averaging less than 6 years, compared to more than 8 years as recently as 2006. After all, the job itself has become much more challenging, with the primary responsibilities of fundraising, crisis management, and worries about rankings revenue, registration, and hiring of subordinates to handle day-to-day matters that include admissions, athletics, budgets, curricula, research and technology, among other elements. Making things even more difficult is the lack of respect for alumni, faculty, students, local and state office holders, and journalists. Chiefs are more accountable to a range of stakeholders, who expect a much greater level of accountability and responsiveness than in the past.

All of this said, I’ve seen, up close, quite a few university presidents who are truly transformational leaders. We might ask: What do personalities like Michael Crowe, Freeman Hrabowski, Rhino Kator and Michael Sorrell have in common?

First, the vision. This vision might be very ambitious, for example, to become a Tier 1 research institution and add a medical school, or more focused: to increase the number of underrepresented students entering STEM fields. But anyway, it’s an inspiring vision that evokes the sanctuary’s sense of mission. Faculty members understand that their standing benefits when their institution’s reputation rises.

Second, acumen in fundraising. The Key: A vision that proves contagious and generates enthusiasm among donors, foundations and legislators. Targeted investments can, in turn, pay off large faculty and leadership to pursue institutional grants that can transform the institution.

Third, the partners. Presidential success depends on allies and comrades-in-arms who share a common vision, a sense of mission, and the ability to execute. The most successful heads identify, support, and showcase faculty innovators and demonstrate their willingness to share credit.

The most effective bosses are not just patrons. They have a unique ability to inspire, motivate and generate enthusiasm – to evoke a sense of urgency as well as a sense of possibility. The best I’ve encountered aren’t nice in the traditional sense: they’re compelling, assertive, determined, decisive, ambitious and daring – with unusually high expectations. But they also delegate power to their assistants (and fire them without a second thought if they fail to perform).

Over the course of a long academic career, I’ve discovered that driving matters more than I could have imagined when I was wet behind my ear. I’ve seen bad leaders—who were self-indulgent or reluctant to resolve, communicate poorly and unable to resolve conflicts—and the damage they can do to faculty and staff morale. But I have also seen the achievements that effective leaders can achieve.

Publilius Syrus, a slave and contemporary of Cicero, who later became a Latin grammar writer, wrote, “Anyone may hold the reins when the sea is calm.” How true. Today’s high seas are not smooth; It’s sporadic or worse, and strategic vision is essential.

So take heed of the words of Peter Drucker, a management consultant: “Effective leadership is not about making speeches or admiring; leadership is defined by results, not qualities.”

Stephen Mintz is Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.

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