When Taking One for the Team Leaves a Permanent Mark

Full 1 vitae baseball analogy 1

Photo by Chris Chow on Unsplash

By Dennis Barden

In baseball, it is sometimes strategically advantageous for a batter to do anything possible to get on base, including allowing himself to be hit by an inside pitch instead of ducking the ball. It hurts, of course, but it can help to give the team a chance to win.

There is a lot of that sort of thing going on in higher education these days.

Leaders across the landscape are taking on extremely difficult and sometimes distasteful tasks — eliminating programs, laying people off, closing facilities, cutting budgets — in order to give their institutions a chance to succeed … or even to just to continue to exist. The result is often unhappiness, discontent, protest, or censure. Most of those decisions are made reluctantly and out of desperation — higher education’s version of taking one for the team.

Where the analogy breaks down is in the aftermath. Baseball players almost always pick themselves up, brush themselves off, and assume their position at first base to continue the game. But many campus executives who take one for the team don’t get to move on.

As search consultants, my colleagues and I see this play out all the time. We meet a candidate who did what was deemed necessary for an institution — downsizing, reorganization, even closure — and is now trying to move into an executive position elsewhere.

The candidate is impressive enough to become a finalist for our client’s opening. Very often, this person has just the right mix of experience and leadership ability that the hiring institution needs. But then, the search committee or the governing board puts on the brakes. They won’t risk a campus outcry in the first 48 hours of the news cycle after the appointment is announced.

To move from the hypothetical to an actual case, consider the all-too-typical experience of a well-regarded, "traditional" (which is to say, risen through the faculty ranks) leader who moved from a prestigious East Coast liberal-arts college to the presidency of a historic but struggling comprehensive university in the Midwest.

Bold action was needed to secure the institution’s future, so the new president led a broad campus process to come up with a firm-but-fair plan of action, guided by shared-governance procedures. However, once the president started to execute the plan, the university’s faculty balked and voted no confidence, leading to the president’s resignation.

Adding injury to insult, that president has not found it possible to return to a leadership position elsewhere. And I know for a fact that the principal reason is because search committees and trustees are unwilling to hire someone whose previous employment ended in such controversy — even if the ousted president did a great job and was unjustly blamed.

All of that happened to someone whose efforts helped to keep a university in business. It doesn’t take a genius to anticipate how executives put in the position of eliminating programs or closing an entire institution are going to fare when they’re out on the job market again.

Bad things are happening to a lot of good people — presidents, provosts, deans — who deserve better.

Beyond concern for those people, however, there is a concern for every college or university seeking leadership: At some point, smart, strong leaders will avoid taking a job at, or even applying to, an institution that is facing serious challenges —- lest they risk ending their career. And such leaders are exactly the kind needed by distressed institutions.

Viewed rationally — which is itself a dicey perspective in today’s higher-education environment — the outcome of a labor market thus tilted away from risk is likely to have a predictable outcome: The very best candidates (as defined by ability plus experience) will exercise their cachet in the market to secure leadership positions at institutions that are already successful (as defined by their competitiveness in the undergraduate enrollment market, balance sheet, and endowment size).

It follows, then, that the shakier the institution’s situation, the fewer and less compelling will be its options when recruiting and retaining leadership, resulting in those campuses that face the greatest peril having the poorest outcomes.

But is this not happening already? Yes, of course, but less than might be expected.

One reason this phenomenon is not yet completely manifest in the higher-education hiring market is the traditional presidential career path. In any given year, many presidents are hired from the ranks of deans, provosts, and vice presidents, but a fair percentage are people moving from one presidency to another. According to the most recent American Council on Education study on this, 24 percent of presidents also held that title immediately prior to their current role.

In my experience, those presidents are nearly always moving from a place with more substantial issues and constraints to one with fewer. If that pipeline is kinked by an unwillingness of search committees and boards to consider or hire candidates whose previous employer has gone through difficult and unhappy transitions — regardless of the soundness of the decisions made and executed — then capable leaders are not going to choose this career path.

The institutions that are struggling the most will then be left with leaders who have no greater prospects for career advancement. The collateral cost to those campuses will be the unwillingness of their less-capable leaders to make bold decisions that might considerably dampen their career prospects. That is a double whammy for the sort of colleges and universities most in need of strength and courage in their leadership.

All of which adds up to the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.

Of more immediate importance: Search committees and boards are, all too frequently, passing over a highly talented leader because they fear an immediate, if uninformed, backlash from institutional constituencies to the tough decisions the executive made in a previous job.

In baseball, the opposite of "taking one for the team" is "bailing out" — i.e., abandoning the batter’s box and making every possible effort not to be hit by the pitch in order to save oneself from harm. If higher education continues to eschew strong leaders who have taken bold and unpopular actions, there will be a lot of presidents bailing out on their institutions — and maybe even on academic leadership in general — in the years to come.

Dennis Barden is a senior partner with the executive search firm WittKieffer. He works extensively with boards, senior institutional leaders, and search committees at both public and private institutions and has written extensively on the administrative search process in higher education

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