The Impossible Presidency

Full vitae impossible presidency

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By Dennis M. Barden

“Leadership has a price,” said Michael Jordan in Episode 7 of The Last Dance. As leaders across higher education are finding, never has that statement been more true.

We find ourselves living through the purest test of leadership in most of our lifetimes. In the wake of Covid-19, higher education — indeed, the entirety of human enterprise — faces a crisis without precedent. It features extremely restricted resources and incomplete and often contradictory information. Add to the mix a 400-year-old sociocultural conflagration and a highly partisan political divide. The result: a calculation with no constants — only variables — and no consensus on resolution or how to reach it.

While college and university leaders work to forge a recovery plan, the battle lines have already been drawn. Some constituents, particularly on the faculty, have already declared that “University Leaders Are Failing.” Other observers have called for time and perspective, and urged critics to refrain from “Bashing Administrators While the University Burns.” If what we are seeing in the public domain is actually representative of campus opinion — and I fear that it is — the divide between the faculty and the administration, in particular, seems wider and more difficult to bridge than at any time in my 40 years in higher education.

And that is saying something.

My perspective is that of a search consultant. My colleagues and I know that such a wide gulf on a campus will affect the hiring market for institutional leadership profoundly and in multiple ways. Some of those ways we can only imagine at this point, but others are all too predictable.

The last time an economic downturn devastated higher education was after the 2008 financial crisis. One result was that senior institutional leaders across the country put their career plans on hold — delaying retirement, declining to be considered for new positions, and hunkering down until the economy improved sufficiently to provide a path forward for their institutions and themselves.

The same is happening now, but the circumstances are very different. A decade ago, not only did many presidents, provosts, and vice presidents feel an ethical imperative to remain in place to serve their institutions, but they couldn’t make a move even if they had wanted to. The financial crisis stalled the housing market, preventing many people from selling a home or buying a new one. Leaders who had been ready to retire watched their pensions lose half of their value. Sure, they felt a calling to stay and lead their campuses through the crisis — but they also couldn’t leave for financial reasons.

It will be different this time. Credit is plentiful and cheap. The stock market has bounced back to the level it would probably have found in a more cyclical correction. People can retire or buy a new home. If campus leaders stay on the job, it is likely to be primarily out of loyalty and a sense of duty. Many of those who stay will be making considerable career sacrifices to do so.

Last fall I wrote in these pages about campus executives who “take one for the team” — they make extremely unpopular decisions (eliminating programs, laying people off, closing facilities, cutting budgets) to keep their institution in business — and pay a steep, personal price for it in their careers.

But that was written before Covid-19 and the killing of George Floyd. Now, navigating completely uncharted waters, a lot of campus leaders are going to make a lot of decisions, and many of those decisions (fairly or not) will be viewed as mistakes. Leaders will take steps that they believe are in the best interest of their institutions, and they will lose their jobs in the process and have their careers forever tainted by those actions.

There simply are no right answers for this moment, and I highly doubt that consensus will develop over the coming weeks and months.

One reason that leadership in higher education is so difficult — especially for job candidates moving from the commercial sector — is that every campus constituency has a different definition of success. There is no singular objective, like increasing shareholder value, that drives every decision on the campus. The faculty wants something different from the trustees, whose objectives are different than those of the students and the alumni, who see the institution through different lenses than the administration does. Each constituency judges institutional leadership idiosyncratically, considers its position as principled, and sees its right to opine on the job performance of campus leaders as sacrosanct.

Into that environment wades the search consultant. Among the most important of our responsibilities is to get to the bottom of controversies, to determine what happened and why, who someone is as a leader, and what our client might expect on the basis of the candidate’s history.

In a typical presidential search, for example, we will conduct interviews, verify the candidates’ degrees and previous employment, bring psychometric assessments into play, and, of course, chat with references (both people on the official list and those off-list). A finalist’s references can vary in tone, even under the best of circumstances, but their assessments can be incredibly at odds when the leader has faced an extraordinary, even existential, crisis.

At some point, we will emerge from the multiple crises of this moment. When we do, most of the sitting leaders in higher education will experience that wide divergence of views about the effectiveness of their leadership. Some of the negatives will be well deserved and dispositive, but a lot of them will not be.

A recent experience — from before the Covid-19 closures — is illustrative. In a search for a chief executive of a public research university, a candidate emerged from the pack, having shown obvious and considerable leadership qualities and experience. Yet that same leader was being targeted for removal, for cause, by his current governing board. All of us working on the search knew that from Day 1.

Over the course of several weeks, the search committee found the candidate compelling and recommended he be given serious consideration. Our reputation as search consultants was on the line, so our team conducted a robust array of reference checks, both on- and off-list. Our client had dozens of formal and informal conversations with people at the candidate’s home institution. In the meantime, that institution’s board had backed away from its plan to fire him but not from its efforts to discredit him.

In the end, both our client and our team were confident that we understood what was happening in this scenario and that our candidate was being victimized. That did not change the fact, however, that the first 48 hours of the news cycle, should he be hired, would dredge up all of the old accusations without providing the very considerable context that our team and our client had discovered.

In this case, our client held firm and hired the candidate. Predictably, the news blew up, but the board stood behind the appointment. We think we added it all up correctly but only time will tell.

Not every board will put in that much work or stand firm in the face of ill winds, and a lot of capable leaders who are making very tough and bold choices now and in the months ahead will find they have sacrificed their future in the process. Higher education will be the poorer for it.

Taking a leadership post in higher education has never been such a risky career proposition. Doing the right thing for your institution will entail decisions like downsizing or cutting academic programs, recalibrating tuition rates, de-emphasizing intercollegiate athletics, or, especially, eliminating positions, including those of tenured professors. Higher education will require leadership that is innovative, nimble, highly collaborative, forward-looking, and, perhaps above all, courageous.

That courage must start in the search process:

  • In evaluating leadership candidates, trustees — and their adjunct, the search committee — must demonstrate insight in determining right from wrong, good decisions from bad, absent the uproar from aggrieved constituents. Then the board must stand strong about its choice in the face of often-uninformed blowback.
  • Faculty members must decide for themselves whether a candidate is appropriate for their campus, rather than take as a proxy the faculty opinion at the candidate’s home institution. Real leaders make the tough call, regardless of the personal cost, and such decisions in a resource-constrained environment nearly always mean some constituency will be unhappy.
  • Alumni, staff, and students must consider the entirety of a leader’s abilities and experience in context — understanding that the challenges of the current marketplace are affecting every institution and that there are no easy, painless answers to these vexing problems.

Good leaders know they may pay a price for making difficult decisions in hard times. But each institution must ensure that the price is reasonable, or it will attract fewer and fewer good leaders.

Dennis Barden is a senior partner with the executive search firm WittKieffer. He works with boards, senior campus leaders, and search committees at both public and private institutions and contributes to The Chronicles series on The Executive Hiring Process.

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