The Finite Life of a College Presidency, Part 2

Podcast by Daniel Barwick

In my last podcast, I talked about what I called the finite life of a college presidency, in which presidents in small community colleges deal with a fairly predictable erosion in their support over a period of five to ten years. That subject matter really struck a nerve – it got more responses than almost any other podcast I’ve done. It got such a strong response that I thought I would devote this podcast to responding to the questions and comments that I received. I thought you might find some of them interesting. All of the comments that I received fall into three categories: First, I was contacted by a significant number of presidents, all of whom have observed the exact phenomena that I was describing and agreed with the thesis of my podcast. The second are people who disagreed with me, and the third were people who asked clarifying questions.

Want to listen to this podcast in its original audible format? Click below! Otherwise, just scroll to continue reading.

I’ll respond to each of these in turn. First, as to those who agreed with me, I’d say it’s significant that not one person who is currently or previously a president disagreed with what I had to say, and that’s despite normal optimism and a general can-do attitude of most presidents. If there was a single line in my podcast that resonated with people, it was the saying that I referred to that “friends come and go, but enemies remain.” Perhaps it would have been more precise to say that enemies accumulate, but you get the idea.

Most of the people who contacted me had their own stories to tell about the permanence of damaged relationships. That’s something worth remembering when you’re about to engage in conflict with someone. You may deal with the aftermath of that for years and years and years to come. Some of the examples that people gave me are classic and familiar: an employee is fired but remains in the community and never forgives the institution or the president; cost-cutting required the cancellation of a program and the supporters of that program never recover from their loss. Certainly more interesting to read were the examples of absolutely petty reasons for the destruction of a relationship or grudges that were held, that prevented a relationship from developing or evolving positively. One president told me a story about how a number of employees reacted negatively when she upgraded the doorknob in her office to comply with fire codes, and those employees were still mentioning the doorknob change in her evaluations five years after she made the change!

That may sound amazing, but I’ve been there myself. I remember that when I arrived at Independence Community College, there was a tradition to give the employees turkeys at Thanksgiving, and this tradition had been going on for several decades. Over that time, it had morphed into something very different than what was originally intended. When I arrived, it seemed to be primarily a source of conflict and resentment because the turkeys were given out in the form of a gift certificate to a local store. Some people had complained that they didn’t like patronizing that particular store. So the practice was changed to include all of the local stores that carried turkeys, but then people complained that they didn’t like turkey or that they chose not to eat meat. So the practice was changed once again to simply be a gift certificate in the amount of the approximate cost of a turkey with the understanding that people could buy whatever they wanted. The gift certificate was, I think, in the amount of $15, and people began to complain that this was a pretty pathetically small gift to the employees for Thanksgiving.

This is at the point where I arrived at the college, and it seemed to me that the gift was simply making many people unhappy, and the gift had been given for so long that it no longer felt like a gift to employees, but rather an entitlement. As a result, there was no corresponding group of grateful people to offset the unhappy people. So the campus appeared to me to simply be spending a few thousand dollars a year on something that produced a net harm to morale on campus, so I stopped the practice and I devoted the money to the funds that were allocated each year for our employee holiday party ,to upgrade the event a bit. Eight years later, that decision was still being described negatively by several employees on my evaluations. At the time I made the decision, I never would have guessed that people would still be upset about a $15 per person decision. Eight years later, I might’ve made a different decision if I had known that.

The second group of people where those who disagreed with me, and the most common objection was from people who observed that terminated employees would not necessarily blame the president.

I probably didn’t describe this very well in the original podcast, but I would say that my experience and the experience of my colleagues is fairly uniform. When people are hurt by the college, whether they blame the president directly or simply blame the college in general and the president by association, the relationship with the president is harmed. Even decisions with which the president had no direct connection are still a source of criticism because it is believed that the president could have intervened after the fact, but did not. Occasionally, you will see this happen in fairly vivid detail: A supervisor terminates one of their direct reports; that direct report comes to the president in the hopes that the decision will be overruled; the president let the decision stand and the employee now blames the president for their termination in addition to their supervisor. I’d be very surprised if there was a president that had not experienced this firsthand.

Another objection I got is that it’s possible to make decisions that negatively affect people without losing their goodwill forever. I agree with this completely and I would clarify this on two fronts. First, most supervisors are able to make decisions that others don’t like without ruining relationships. In fact, this applies to most of the controversial decisions that a leader makes. However, my focus in the podcast was a specific subset of decisions: the ones that either can’t be done diplomatically, or somehow achieving diplomacy is beyond the skill level of most administrators. A typical example of this at my own institution was the process of contract renewal for faculty. Prior to tenure in the state of Kansas, faculty are not afforded due process until they received tenure, or put more precisely, receiving tenure means receiving the right to due process. This means that by definition, employment decisions about the faculty member prior to the guarantee of due process means that the faculty member has little or no recourse about the decisions that are made. And in Kansas, very little be shared with them about the rationale behind the decision, since that is thought to inadvertently create a sort of due process for that employee. The consequence of all of this is that the college is forced to make life changing decisions for an employee but cannot offer a substantial context for that decision to the employee. That’s a situation that is a recipe for hard feelings.

The second point I would make about losing someone’s goodwill forever is that you don’t need to lose it forever for my thesis to be correct. You only need to lose it for the foreseeable future; the period in which the president hopes to drive positive change at the institution and need some critical mass of Goodwill and support in order to do that. I’ve personally seen ruined relationships healed after a couple of decades, but by then the advantage of the repair may have been lost.

A number of people wrote to me to say that they did not really like my characterization of this deterioration in the relationship with people in the community as a mathematical certainty. I’m not sure what to say about that because I probably am using the phrase “mathematical certainty” in a way that would make a mathematician cringe. I am not sure how to characterize it correctly. I would say this that during a lengthy period of scarce resources, where the leadership of the college will be forced to make difficult decisions about priorities in those circumstances, in a small community, you will over time alienate more people than you will gain friends. I’m not sure that that’s a mathematical certainty, but I have never seen an exception to that. I would remind the listener of what I said in my original podcast where I described it in largely mathematical terms: The difficult decisions that you will make will alienate a certain number of people. You can arbitrarily guess at what that number will be, but the fact is that each year that number of people that you alienated is greater than the number of new relationships that you can create locally if you are in a small community, because there aren’t enough people to create new relationships with locally. So I freely admit that it’s not necessarily a mathematical relationship in the way a mathematician would use it, but I do think that it is as a practical matter, something that is very predictable and in fact once it’s explained, it has a certain mathematical inevitability that is one number is simply greater than the other under certain circumstances.

Some people were uncomfortable with my recommendation that the president move on to a different institution after a certain amount of time under those specific circumstances that had described in the podcast (in a small community, in a small college etc.). They point to presidents who last far longer than 10 years in their institutions. I’ll say a couple of things about that. First, I have no doubt there are such people, but I think that if you examine those people, those presidents and their tenures closely, you’re going to find some recurring themes:

Number one, they may be simply much more skilled than the norm. Second, it may be that they have simply not had to make the kind of difficult decisions about prioritization that strain relationships. Third, in my original podcast, I referred to the effect of outside forces acting on a presidency in which the president must respond to those forces, and those responses are just full of pitfalls. It may be that those presidents have not had significant outside forces acting on them. So although there are presidents who remain for a long time at their institutions, I think you would need to look at them carefully and see if they simply don’t have the characteristics that I was describing in my podcast, in which they’re presidents of small community colleges in small communities that are having to deal with very difficult resource decisions or very significant external forces.

I did get a lot of clarifying questions or just questions from people who are interested in the topic. I’ll just mention a few of those. One that was actually asked by three different people. When did you know that your honeymoon period had ended? Actually, I think I can pinpoint that pretty specifically because it was due to an unforced error. It was due to a mistake that I made which actually is in keeping with what I described in my original podcast, where the president makes an error and as a result the complaints reach a certain critical mass and the honeymoon period ends. My recollection is that we participated in a character building program at the college called Character First, and this character building program required group meetings of the employees on a monthly basis. Because the entire college was participating in the program and we were actually paying quite a bit of money to participate in it, I required that the employees attend these monthly meetings. But for some faculty this was a bridge too far. It was not part of the workload that was described in their contract and they were upset with me. And I think that they were legitimately upset with me. Even though the character building program that we were participating in was expensive, and even though it had value for the institution, I think that being respectful of the faculty contract is more important, because that’s a legal contract and it’s also a contract about something that is central to education, which is the institution’s relationship with its teachers. The fact that I placed the character building program ahead of the teaching contract, (even though nobody directly challenged me on that; that is, nobody grieved that or anything like that), I think that that was a mistake. And the pushback that I got, my recollection was thinking, first, I shouldn’t have done that, and second, my relationship with the campus has changed a bit and this is incident illustrates that.

A recurring theme in the comments was that I’m correct that presidents need to move on. And in fact, many people who commented to me said that in fact I’m underestimating the need for presidents to move on. That is, I only identified one circumstance in which they should be moving on, when in fact there are a number of circumstances. And one of the recurring themes in that was that different circumstances for colleges require different leaders with different sets of skills. A campus’s needs are going to ebb and flow. At one time, they may need a very dynamic leader; at another time, they may need a sort of Steady Eddie. As these needs change, the president needs to recognize that their set of skills (even though they are skills, even though they may be good at what they do) are not necessarily what the campus needs at that time. So that the president would need to recognize that and to move to a campus where they are simply a better fit for that new institution’s needs, and allow someone else to come in and take the reins at their old institution and fulfill the needs of that institution.

I did get a fair amount of what I’ll just describe as sort of anti-faculty comments. The general message was that a faculty have too much autonomy and so they can make things too difficult for a president and that’s the real problem. I could not disagree more. The autonomy of faculty is one of the reasons why the higher education system of the United States is one of the best in the world and is often the envy of the world. Faculty are highly educated employees, who in many cases have been at the institution for a long time. They care deeply about the institution. If they disagree with the president or another administrator, most often their disagreement has real merit. You ignore their opinion at your peril and at the peril of the institution. Of course, autonomy or more generally speaking, freedom, has the potential to be abused and we have all seen it. However, administrators have a fair amount of freedom as well in virtue of their authority status, and that can be abused too. So I don’t think that the issue is faculty. And I will say also that having worked in organizations outside of academia, I can say that similar phenomena occur in non-educational institutions where there are employees who remember how they’ve been treated and act based on that perhaps for years to come. And so I don’t think this is particularly unique to education, although I think it’s more pronounced in education. And I would say that it is absolutely not a function of the way the American educational system treats faculty. In my opinion, the American educational system does not give faculty enough autonomy. In the vast majority of cases, when faculty are given autonomy and responsibility, they do an excellent job of meeting that responsibility.

As I said, I got a lot of response to that podcast and I appreciate all of the comments. So I decided to sort of push back the normal episode that we were going to have. The next time I talked to you, I’ll be talking about attempts to reform how prisoners can take advantage of higher education.