Failed College Presidencies – What Have You Done For Us Lately?

One of my favorite books around the age of twelve was True Tales of Terror. A nonfiction account of murders, mayhem, and disasters, it mixed gore and goth, leading to a fascination with unhappy stories. While I eventually I tired of reading about catastrophes, every now and then the sentiment returns and I catch the local news or watch a horror movie. Recently in such a mood, I recently picked up Presidencies Derailed: Why University Leaders Fail and How To Prevent It. The book highlights the contingent nature college presidencies and emphasizes that sometimes there are no good endings.

Authored by former George Washington University president Stephen Joel Trachtenberg with Gerald D. Kauver, a research professor at GWU, and E. Grade Bogue, former chancellor of the Louisiana State University, Presidencies Derailed is a simple and powerful study of college presidencies that ended badly. It is a particularly helpful addition to the scholarship of higher education because so much surrounding the beginning and end of institutional presidencies is cloaked in privacy. The book’s blurb notes that “University presidents have become as expendable as football coaches,” but the analogy is only partially apt. We know when coaches are in trouble: they lose games. A college president is judged in multiple arenas by all manner of stakeholders and it is much harder to tell the score.

At the heart of Presidencies Derailed are sixteen case studies. To make sense of these failures, the authors propose six generalized themes that are present in some mixture in each of the cases:

  • Ethical lapses
  • Poor interpersonal skills
  • Inability to lead key constituencies
  • Difficulty adapting to institutional culture
  • Failure to meet business objectives
  • Board shortcomings

Presidencies DerailedComplementing the studies are two first-hand accounts of presidencies that ended abruptly. William Frawley describes his challenges and health issues that contributed to the end of his presidency at the University of Mary Washington. Michael Garrison, briefly the president of West Virginia University, gives his perspective on the complicated dynamics that ended his appointment. Athletics pose special problems.

The book ends with two chapters that make suggestions on how to avoid presidential train wrecks. Unsurprisingly, the authors devote much effort exploring presidential searches. Noting that institutions begin and end the search process in “self -delusion,” the authors stress that it is impossible to ever find the best person for the job. It is an impossible task. Rather, institutions accept the contingent nature of any search and moderate expectations. The best announcement that can come from the conclusion of a search would then be that  “we have found a very good person, an excellent fit for the institution, and a president of wonderful potential.”

The authors propose seven suggestions for a successful search:

  1. Undertake a governing board assessment
  2. Be selective in appointing the search committee
  3. Clarify what, if any, professional guidance and support are needed
  4. Prioritize characteristics of the next president
  5. Share information and establish mutual expectations
  6. Screen candidates with care
  7. Speak with one voice about the appointment

The authors are not interested in reshaping institutions; their focus is on effective governance. Accordingly, these recommendations stand in contrast to the guidelines proposed by the Aspen Institute. The authors also speak from first-hand experience. They note that effective search committees are smaller and led by people who have experience hiring senior level management. They emphasize the critical role that board dynamics plays in finding a good fit for the institution, as well as the success of the chosen president. In many ways, the effectiveness of the chief executive officer starts and stops with the board.

Presidencies Derailed provides a welcome take on one part of a fascinating question: What makes an institution of higher education successful? Leadership matters. In their examination of failure, the authors’ categories make sense in a broad way. In fact, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which a presidential failure would not fall under one more of these headings. The challenge, of course, is in that being so inclusive. the authors are challenged in determining what combinations and factors lead to a particular failure. It is not hard to find university presidents who exhibit one or more of these traits and are comfortably enjoying a long and successful term.

The authors state that failures happen with all kinds of institutions and with all manner of people. No one is immune. And as for my attraction to horror, bad stories always feel different when they are closer to home. I am ready to take a break from failure and focus on the positive next.

David Potash

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