Leadership Turnover Creates Surge in Searches for College Presidents

Turnover in the top leadership of colleges and universities across the country has been keeping executive recruiters who specialize in the academic sector busier than ever. In fact, there are at least 59 searches underway right now. Expert recruiters offer their perspective on what’s behind the trend and the challenges it poses. It’s another Hunt Scanlon exclusive!

January 18, 2019 – A growing number of top colleges around the country are looking for high-profile leaders to take them into the future.

In most cases, executive recruiting firms have had a hand in some aspect of the search and selection process.

Atlanta-based Parker Executive Search, for one, has been enlisted to find the next president for the University of South Carolina. Search firm president Laurie C. Wilder and vice president Porsha L. Williams are leading the assignment.

The University of South Carolina wants an entrepreneurial president who has a vision to inspire academic achievement, administrative excellence, and creative productivity with a commitment to South Carolinians, said Parker Executive Search. The president serves as the chief executive officer for the flagship Columbia, SC campus and for the entire University of South Carolina system.

These days, the job market is hot almost across the board. The same applies to college presidencies, especially in private non-profit higher education. In recent weeks, 59 presidential searches were underway, and in various stages, said Roland King, former vice president for public affairs at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, an association of more than 1,000 private non-profit college presidents. The institutions range from household names like Pepperdine University to smaller, more specialized places like Lancaster Bible College in Pennsylvania.

All Types Affected 

The openings encompass almost every type of private college and university, said Mr. King. More than two-thirds are at baccalaureate and master’s institutions. The others are split between eight doctoral universities and six special-focus four-year institutions (two business and management schools, three faith-related institutions, and one health professions school).

As for size, roughly two-thirds have an undergraduate enrollment of 2,000 students or fewer. There are 16 searches at institutions with 2,000 to 5,000 undergraduates, and just five at universities with over 5,000 undergraduates.

For possible candidates, these 59 openings range from unqualified career opportunities, to manageable challenges, to what Mr. King suspects are “unmitigated disasters.” The trick – for provosts, deans, vice presidents and increasingly candidates from outside higher education – is to distinguish one group from another.


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A place to start is by not looking ahead, but back. What has been the institution’s presidential history? What happened to the previous president, and after how long?

 A Mixed Bag

The searches are a mixed bag. Half of the exiting presidents had a tenure of 10 years or more – a surprising number given that in 2016 the average president across all sectors had been in his/her current position six and a half years, according to the American Council on Education’s “2017 American College Presidents Study.”

Following a long-tenure president can be both positive and negative. “Certainly, long tenure indicates some level of institutional stability, and often a supportive board of trustees,” said Mr. King. “But it also can point toward institutional atrophy. An administration can get lulled into a ‘way we’ve always done it’ mentality, ignore danger signs and fight change and innovation. The board, likewise, can be too hands-off, avoiding tough decisions and allowing an ineffective president to remain in place rather than confronting failed leadership.”

Current Private College Presidential Searches 

Ave Maria University  Minneapolis College of Art and Design 
Azusa Pacific University  Morris Brown 
Brenau University  Mount Aloysius College
Carson-Newman University  National University of Natural Medicine
Centenary University  Northwood University – Michigan
Christian Brothers University  Oklahoma Baptist University
Claflin University  Oklahoma Wesleyan University
Clark Atlanta University  Reed College 
Clark University   Roger Williams University
College of St. Scholastica  Saint Anselm College 
Concordia University Irvine  Saint Mary’s College 
Earlham College  Salem College
Elizabethtown College  Santa Clara University
Endicott College Seton Hall University 
Gardner-Webb University  Thomas More University
Georgetown College  University of Lynchburg
Goucher College  University of Southern California
Judson College  Villa Maria College
Keuka College  Walsh University
La Sierra College  Wentworth Institute of Technology 
Lancaster Bible College  Wilkes University
Luther College  The Master’s University

It can also be problematic replacing a charismatic and beloved figure at the top, especially one with unusually long tenure. In the current group of exiting presidents, two have served over 20 years, and four have held their jobs for more than 30 years. More than anyone else, the president is the public face of the college or university, and putting on a new face can be tough.

The other extreme with different dangers are the places with too-frequent presidential turnover. “Especially troubling are those with short-term presidencies of four years or less,” said Mr. King. “There are eight of these in the 59 current searches. In fact, one college has had four presidents in the past 10 years. Candidates would be wise to look at possible factors behind the predecessor’s departure, and just how the former president left.”

Money Woes

With unprecedented financial challenges, a number of smaller colleges, and even some name-brand larger institutions, are hoping to hire a miracle worker – but that fact might not be part of the presidential search prospectus. In the ACE study cited above, only about two-thirds of the respondents felt they had been adequately informed of the institution’s current challenges and financial condition.

Related: RH Perry & Associates Tapped to Find Sixth President for Harper College

Within colleges and universities, good information about bad developments is often hard to find. “Many presidents see their role as the institution’s cheerleader and are not inclined to share negative information widely,” said Mr. King. “The marketers in the admissions office usually have the same tendency. And members of the board of trustees may either be unaware of emerging problems within the administration, or simply prefer to not openly address difficult decisions. This means the bad news often emerges through unofficial channels, such as the student newspaper, or through leaks of internal communications with faculty and staff.”

A surprising one-fourth of the current presidential searches – 16 in all – are at institutions that might be considered “troubled colleges.” “This designation doesn’t mean the institutions on the list won’t survive, and even prosper,” said Mr. King. “Some are well-established, well-endowed, and highly regarded. However, they are among the colleges currently being challenged as they find their way in a changing higher education landscape.”


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This assessment of these colleges comes, not from hard metrics, but from publicly available accounts (most often, news stories) of internal problems: financial pressures, frequent presidential transitions, and student/faculty turmoil, for example. “The bottom line is that there are plenty of opportunities right now for those climbing the higher education administration ladder,” said Mr. King. “But watch your step.”

Seeking Answers

There are a wide range of reasons behind the many searches, said Mr. King. Among them:

Normal turnover – A younger (maybe first-time) president has been in place five or 10 years, and is ready for the next step in his/her career progression, or an older president is simply ready to retire. Janet Riggs at Gettysburg College and Andrew Benton at Pepperdine might be examples of each.

Related: Russell Reynolds Associates Tapped to Find President for Kent State

Institutional crisis – A newer cause for turnover, the handling of a major issue (sexual harassment has become a big one) can damage the president’s credibility and viability. Two high-profile examples might be Joel Seligman at the University of Rochester, and Max Nikias at the University of Southern California.

Long-term institutional challenges – Most often financial, this may be behind many presidencies now turning over, especially among the smaller colleges. Examples are sprinkled through the entire list of searches, such as Salem College in North Carolina and Earlham College in Indiana.

Institutional stress from adapting to change – Colleges are slow to change. Now as higher education is changing rapidly, some places have difficulty reinventing themselves or even accepting change at all. This can play out as tensions between the board and president, with each having different visions for the future. A possible example might be Haverford College, which is highly selective and highly regarded, but with what may be record presidential turnover. The school has had four presidents in the past 10 years, and the current search will make that five.

“The university president position seems more vulnerable and treacherous every day,” said R. William Funk, CEO of R. William Funk & Associates. “There has recently been a spate of presidents stepping down or retiring under a cloud of controversy. In some cases, the departure of the president has been hastened by wrongful deeds perpetuated by subordinates, while others are the victims of greater student and faculty activism, board dysfunction, or the accumulation of controversial decisions they have made.”

Related: CarterBaldwin Recruits President for Trinity Western University

“While many of these outgoing presidents have accomplished excellent things for their universities, it seems that most of them have been tagged with some kind of controversy in their administrations before announcing they were stepping down,” said Mr. Funk. “Rightly or wrongly, the buck stops at the feet of the president. Universities are increasingly large and complex organisms and leading them becomes more challenging all the time. A president never knows what issue or issues will come across her/his desk on any given day.”

Jan Greenwood, partner at Greenwood/Asher & Associates, said that about 92 percent of university presidents are between their late 50s and mid 70s and are considering retirement or actually retiring.

Growing Pressures

“Dealing with the challenges of financial pressures has been part of the presidents’ work since at least the early 1980s,” said Ms. Greenwood. “Presidents typically were in office for 20 plus years before 1980 and generally served in one presidency before retiring. The presidents since the 1980s have had the opportunity to serve in more than one presidency and the amount of time in each position has been three to 10 years. Student and faculty turmoil, while quite different from each other, has been part of higher education for decades going back to at least the 1960s.”

Related: Spencer Stuart Finds New Leader for Babson College

Shelli Herman, founder and president of Shelli Herman and Associates, said that university presidents have always been the public face of their organizations. In light of increased pressures on institutions of higher education, the demand for strong, ethical leadership has never been more marked. “Students, faculty, and campus communities expect leadership to model organizational values,” said Ms. Herman. “Because of this, boards are especially discerning around integrity and transparency, as recent events at the University of Southern California, Penn State and Michigan State University show.”


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“The expectation is that presidents handle contentious situations immediately and efficiently, while ensuring due process,” said Ms. Herman. “Gone are the days when protecting the university meant trying to minimize the incident by ‘overlooking’ or explaining away bad behavior. Leadership at all levels, including and especially university presidents, must be unequivocal about doing whatever they can to create a culture of fairness and virtuous behavior.”

Shawn M. Hartman, vice president and chief operating officer for Academic Search Inc., said that many higher education institutions face challenges when it comes to seeking executive leadership talent. “It can be personnel, time, financial and a host of other issues,” he said. “When these challenges are presented, the institutions wrestle with what is the cost if we do not have a successful search. The pressures facing college and university leaders are increasing every day. College and university leadership transitions can be a challenge for the campus but also present a great opportunity.”

An Evolving Role

“Colleges and universities replace their executive leaders for a myriad of reasons,” said Emily Parker Myers, CEO of Myers McRae Executive Search and Consulting. “As the mission or the direction of the institution significantly changes, a new leader with a different background is often needed to lead the transition. A short tenure for a president usually is the result of a poor fit with the college or university,” she said. “It may be a difference in the president’s vision and the board’s vision, or a leadership style that is not effective within the institution’s culture and organization.”

“Presidents can be the proverbial scapegoat of problems that are not directly leadership related,” she says. “Except for dismissal involving serious circumstances, a former president can continue to have a significant career in higher education. It is important that they speak honestly about the situation that resulted in their resignation. Social media today leaves no room for evasion of the facts.”

“When conducting a presidential search, it is imperative that we continually listen to our clients so we can understand the vision and expectations that they have for their next executive leader,” Ms. Myers said. “It also is important to learn as much about the culture of the institution as possible. When we present a candidate in a search, we have researched the facts so we can advise the board and search committee as to why this individual is an outstanding prospect for their institution.,” she says. “In discussing the opportunity with the candidate, we are truthful about the institution and its needs and vision. Both of those elements are at the foundation of every successful presidential search.”

Ron Schiller, founding partner and senior consultant for the Aspen leadership Group, said that as revenue models change and fundraising plays an increasingly important role in most non-profit organizations, including colleges and universities, the role of president is evolving. “Much more so than in past decades, today’s president is expected to be a proven and enthusiastic fundraiser,” he said. “It is not unusual for presidents to consider themselves their organizations’ chief fundraisers, and this has in turn elevated the strategic importance of the chief development officer’s role and the importance of a strong partnership between president and CDO.”

Related: Academic Sector Pumping Big Fees Into Search Firms

Nowadays, Mr. Schiller said, it is rare for a presidential search announcement not to highlight fundraising. And announcements of presidential retirements and other departures tout fundraising accomplishments in the first paragraph if not the first sentence of the announcement. “Other responsibilities of the president have not gone away, but financial pressures, and associated fundraising pressures, have increased dramatically,” said Mr. Schiller. “Top donors understandably want a relationship with the president, and with more donors required, presidents must travel more, and they must devote more evenings and weekends to fundraising activity. This takes them away from time with faculty and students, not to mention spouses and families.”

“The shortening of presidential tenures is not a surprising result, as traditional pathways to the presidency do not necessarily prepare presidents for these responsibilities and demands, nor do these pathways necessarily produce candidates who are the best suited to the new and expanded role,” said Mr. Schiller. “These changes are not in and of themselves bad changes. They do, however, require a fresh look at preparation for the role and at staffing structures that support presidents in these expanded duties.”

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor; and Andrew W. Mitchell, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media

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