Some politicians make good college presidents, at least on paper. As Rick Seltzer reported in Inside Higher Education last week, the best of them possess many of the same skills as successful college and university presidents. They are typically well connected with outside stakeholders, enjoy good name recognition, and know how to fundraise, at least with certain groups of donors. Many of them have some knowledge of higher education – usually on a macro level – that sets them apart within a pool of potential candidates when presidencies open up.
Mr. Seltzer noted that the most recent American College President Study found that about two percent within a pool of candidates in presidential searches had at least some political experience at the local, state, or federal level in their previous positions.
Long Tradition, Bumpy Road
The most famous historical examples perhaps are Woodrow Wilson and Dwight Eisenhower, who served as presidents of Princeton and Columbia, respectively. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were the first rectors of the University of Virginia. There are also recent examples of politicians-turned-presidents whom many Americans perceive as successful, whatever their detractors say. University chancellors and presidents in Indiana, Massachusetts, North Carolina, California, and Oklahoma are among them.
It’s a long tradition that has also faced a bumpy road. The recent donnybrooks at Kennesaw State University and the University of West Florida provide concrete real-time case studies.
Let’s not get into the weeds on the merits of each case but look instead at the principles, process, and expectations placed upon politicians seeking a college presidency. In doing so, it’s easy to see why confrontations can occur over a selection and to suggest ways in which these controversies can be avoided. Further, let’s agree to treat the issues at public and private institutions similarly.
Presidential Search Process Must Be Thoughtful, Deliberate, and Balanced
In any pool, the best candidate on paper, following the interview process and after an analysis of what an institution needs, should win the position. It’s important to recognize, however, that it is not enough for the candidate to “shock and awe” during the search process except perhaps at needy institutions with weak search committees. That process must be thoughtful, deliberate, and balanced. It presumes that the search process is fair, the search committee is seasoned and balanced, and political and personal prejudices are put aside during the selection. It is sophomoric to suggest responsibly that the search can produce some cross between Superman and Clark Kent on a good day to find a perfect candidate.
Further, a good screening of candidates assumes that search committee members represent key stakeholder classes and that the institution’s system of shared governance works. It is the responsibility of the Board to be careful in its charge to the committee. With that charge, however, must come a mandate to create a balanced pool of traditional and non-traditional candidates.
Traditional candidates presumably understand how American higher education works. Non-traditional candidates offer insight and broad experience from their work outside the academy.
Occasionally, a search will even turn up candidates with experiences across several occupational and employment lines.
Don’t Assume Step Up is Easy for Senior Higher Ed Leaders
An emerging concern is the growing reluctance of senior higher education leadership to move into presidencies. Many provosts simply do not want the job. Further, the ongoing continuing education to support their role as president and the continuing education critical to ensure that they are well trained for it is episodic and spotty at best.
For many “provost presidents,” the presumption is that they know what they are doing. But serving as the chief academic officer is often quite distinct from what is required by their new duties. For others, there is simply a “deer with their eyes caught in the headlights” series of challenges to be faced in the first critical years of a presidency.
Many former provosts are extremely successful as presidents and serve with honor and distinction. But the job is more complex than being a ceremonial mayor disguised as a patriarchal father figure.
The non-traditional candidates in the pool are a much smaller group. The best case for them may well be that there increasingly appears to be a growing crisis in the American college presidency as demands, fueled by shifting expectations and attitudes, social media pronouncements, and economic pressures built upon a collapsing and unsustainable operating model, detract from the stature formerly considered part of the job.
Higher Ed Learning Curve, Especially Shared Governance, is Steep for Politicians
Non-traditional candidates can provide a solution for an institution in which presidents have presided but not led. They have insight and are usually change agents that can make their candidacy attractive at colleges and universities where aspirations still matter. It only works when these institutions know what they want. And most importantly, the Board must be prepared to stand with the president, keeping their noses in and their hands outside of the tent.
At these institutions, a politician-turned-president may be an attractive solution, especially if the politician has shown creativity and ingenuity in the way that they govern. Choosing a narrow ideologue almost never works, especially among faculty and students who value academic freedom.
Politicians must be willing to learn the job – especially their role in shared governance for which they will have no direct experience but considerable unofficial training – if they are to be successful.
But politicians can be a good choice. Their addition to a deep pool of presidential candidates can add tremendous value. And a number of them matched to the right circumstances will make fine presidents.
In September 2012, I chose to begin to contribute to the national conversation about higher education by tackling the concept of leadership in one of my first blogs for the Huffington Post.
In that article, I suggested, “the job has evolved, but the national imperative for presidents to lead as well as govern remains constant.” As leaders of institutions who incubate ideas, college and university presidents are ideally positioned to make a significant contribution.
Obstacles to Presidential Leadership
I chronicled a number of obstacles to experienced presidential leadership, asserting that:
- the training for how to be a president was spotty, episodic, and inconsistent;
- there is no carefully cultivated farm team from which to pull promising future leaders into the major leagues;
- there is little evidence of trustee-initiated succession planning; and
- shared governance values process and consensus over outcomes making it more difficult for “change agent” presidents to succeed.
Crisis in Shared Governance
While the reception the post received persuaded me to continue to publish and speak out on issues of higher ed leadership and governance, there was something missing from my argument. The recent dust-ups among college presidents, boards of trustees, and faculty reinforce the continuing crisis in shared governance.
The cold fact is that there is no evidence to suggest that presidents seeking to lead have any incentive to do more than preside.
It’s dangerous to put your tenure on the line and imperative that you know when to fall on your sword. What I missed in that first blog, however, was that there is a practical side to college leadership.
Shared Governance Suffers from Lack of Education
The biggest failure in shared governance is the lack of broad-based education about the issues facing those who govern America’s colleges and universities. Trustees are the most poorly educated. There is a corresponding need to keep faculty fully informed, especially on issues that affect higher education beyond the college gates.
All parties should be watching the platform positions taken by the two presidential candidates, for example, to determine how the potential implementation of these positions will affect their institution.
But there is a practical dimension to leadership. What you know, how much you know, and where and how you educate yourself has a direct relationship to the quality of shared governance on a college campus.
Education begins with the presidents, given their role as chief spokespersons and chief executive officers. A president must be an informed generalist on almost any subject that affects higher education. It’s hard to be transparent in a university community when you don’t know much about the subjects that most affect it.
New Book is Must-Read for Senior Leadership in Higher Ed
A new book by George Boggs and Christine Johnson McPhail, Practical Leadership in Community Colleges: Navigating Today’s Challenges, is a must-read for senior leadership at every level – including faculty, senior staff, trustees, and presidents.
The authors, both seasoned higher education leaders, use field experiences, reports, news coverage, and interviews with leaders and policy makers to review some of the challenges facing college leadership and offer advice on how best to navigate and succeed against the crosscurrents that leadership faces. They offer case studies to show in practical terms how the job gets done.
Where the Theoretical Meets the Practical
Drs. Boggs and McPhail have performed an invaluable service because they offer a readable primer that is also a continuing resource, especially for new leadership. Its value extends across American higher education, although the concentration is on America’s community colleges. Their book is where the theoretical meets the practical.
In a recent interview with George Boggs, I asked why practicality would resonate with leaders whose day job is to be “big picture” oriented. Boggs replied that higher education leadership emerges unprepared from a variety of backgrounds. He argued persuasively that the range of topics, venues, and constituencies presumed a deeper understanding among new presidents than exists today.
Dr. Boggs believes that the most important contribution that the book can make is to encourage leaders to “think about issues before they have to deal with them.”
Greatest Challenge is Helping Students Succeed
You come away from a book like Practical Leadership asking about the policy behind the advice. Boggs suggested that he and Dr. McPhail view helping students succeed as the greatest challenge facing American higher education. They remain encouraged that major foundations and national policy makers are tackling pieces of the foundation upon which student success is built.
Perhaps that’s what’s best about this new primer. It’s optimistic and hopeful – a kind of “roll up your sleeves and get the job done” approach to leadership. In that blog four years ago, I suggested that presidents must have the courage to lead. Boggs and McPhail now demonstrate that it is also important to know how and why.
American higher education’s operational model is based on outmoded — and some (myself included) would argue, unsustainable — revenue and expense assumptions.
In a “Futurist” piece in NACUBO’s Business Officer magazine (July/August 2016), I argue that institutions must look inward to develop a budget format that creates a sustainable financial model appropriate to changing circumstances on college and university campuses.
To achieve financial viability, each institution will have to manage change by developing new financial models after evaluation its own set of strengths and weaknesses. Many institutions will succeed; some will not. …The biggest variable is the experience and innovative capacity of the leadership.
Specifically, it will be critical to match changing financial practices with modernized, streamlined and better informed governance — beginning with how trustees see their role in shared governance.
Click HERE or on the image below to read and/or download the article.
Click HERE to read the article and the entire issue on the Business Officer site.