During my academic career spanning 23 years at the same institution, I have served—in different capacities—six presidents, the last 3 in the last 3 years. Data on higher education executive leadership says “College presidents are . . . spending less time in each job. The average tenure of a college president in their current job was 6.5 years in 2016, down from seven years in 2011. It was 8.5 years in 2006. More than half of presidents, 54 percent, said they planned to leave their current presidency in five years or sooner” (Seltzer, 2017).
With frequent changes in presidential leadership, what can institutions do to support effective transitions?
First and foremost, all constituents must promote acceptance and open-mindedness. For faculty members, a new president may bring the idea of hope and possibly relief from what was faced in the previous administration. At the same time, faculty members may feel like they are on an endless carrousel ride: the only ones not hopping on or off. “Administrators come and go, only faculty remain to watch out for the institution.” says a faculty member in Arts and Sciences from my institution.
Second, as the cabinet welcomes the new president and helps build the presidential team, it is important to emphasize a balance between cabinet members who are keepers of institutional knowledge and new employees who can be agents of change. It may be prudent for a president to bring on a trusted adviser or superstar worker, but existing, efficient members of a cabinet can facilitate integration into the academic and social communities. An all-new cabinet runs the risk of fighting institutional history battles without getting the advantage of historical context, while a stagnant cabinet misses the opportunities of creative and new ideas. We have all heard, “This is the way we have always done it,” as resistance to change.
I once heard a higher education administrator say that each cabinet member should hand a resignation letter to the incoming president. While the move seems a bit extreme, the spirit is to signal to all one’s willingness to work for what is best for the institution. Loosely related to this theme is an often-heard utterance: “I serve at the pleasure of the president.” This sentence strikes me as archaic. In a world that favors collaboration and equity, it is reminiscent of medieval times. It is, however, true that a university president should be afforded the courtesy of selecting the entirety of cabinet.
Third, it is the duty of the entire university community to properly welcome a new presidential family. All levels of leadership should organize welcome events for the family and make efforts to introduce them to the community. These efforts should target the non-presidential part of the family. The president will have a path into integration laid out while the rest of the family may struggle in a new environment. I see particular responsibility to the families who relocated for a new job.
Fourth, of distinct importance is helping build a strong relationship between an incoming president and the Office of Philanthropy/Advancement. From the president’s side, joining the highest level of giving society and making the institution part of the family’s estate planning is a must. The presidential family needs to show unwavering support for the new institution and all of its members. From the office’s perspective, the president is the fundraising agent assigned at the highest levels of giving, and the difficulty lies in assessing a balance of direct involvement in the totality of the philanthropy portfolio.
Fifth, a presidential transition provides an optimal opportunity to (re)assess the mission and strategic plan of an educational institution. This assessment may go from designing a different mission and strategic plan to a new interpretation on reaching the university’s established mission. It is the cabinet’s responsibility to help the president achieve the correct balance between old ideas and new ideas while navigating this process.
Sixth, there is the issue of trust and vulnerability. The new president and each member of the university community, but especially mid- and high-level administrators, must engage in a dance (of sorts) regarding levels of trust and opportunities for vulnerability. Each member must decide whether (a) to trust fully, starting with the first meeting and expose all vulnerability; (b) to keep all cards guarded and assume a reactive stance, or (c) to alternate between both approaches. Here I must share my approach: trust from day one, operate with all cards on the table—face up, if possible—and be vulnerable in the arena. Of course, this approach suits me, but it may not be the best for all, and it is definitely not the best approach for all situations.
Lastly, a point of frustration is that, because the landscape of higher education is evolving, the message that a new president can send remains predictable and familiar: beware traditional undergraduate enrollment falling off the cliff, communicate the importance of alternative sources of revenue, build the endowment, become fluent in alternative modes of delivery, service adult and graduate population, look into new programs, eliminate under-performing programs, etc. The repetitiveness of the message may be frustrating, as human beings may gravitate to place all hope in this one administrative change of a new president. (This is not fair for the president, nor for the institution, but that is a separate topic.) A very important point is that the message that a president sends does not exist in a vacuum, and it gains context through tone. The tone of the message delivery is individual and as such, controlled by the president. A new president can make a difference in the community that s/he joins; a positive and transparent tone lays the foundation for cooperation.
In the end, to help with presidential transitions, the university community needs to commit to helping the president be the best president s/he can be and deliver the message to be the best match to institutional mission and culture.
Seltzer, Rick, “The Slowly Diversifying Presidency,” Inside Higher Ed, 20 June 2017, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/06/20/college-presidents-diversifying-slowly-and-growing-older-study-finds
Related topics: managing change