The Finite Life of a College Presidency

Podcast by Daniel Barwick

I’d like to begin the podcast this week by thanking Jeff Carpenter of the podcast “Life after Last Chance U,” which is available at all major podcast outlets. Jeff interviewed me about my time on the show. If you tune into this podcast because you’re interested in the occasional tidbits about Last Chance U, Jeff’s show would be a perfect listen for you. It’s really exclusively about Last Chance U and life in the Jayhawk conference. It’s an entertaining show and Jeff is a consummate professional, both in analyzing situations and of course in interviewing. He interviews a number of main characters on the show and I always listen to it. I enjoyed it very much and I recommend it highly. I thank Jeff for having me on. It was great fun.

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

Awhile back, a reader of my blog contacted me and posed the following couple of questions. What’s the life cycle of a presidency? Why do some end quickly and some presidents serve for decades? And are there any lessons to be learned from the way they end?

As someone who’s gone through the entire cycle of a presidency, I thought that I might be in a good position to talk about that topic. Interestingly enough, a good friend of mine had urged me not to talk about this topic while I was a president because she felt that talking about a finite life of a presidency was a little fatalistic and sounded a bit like sort of a resignation. She thought, you don’t want people speculating about that kind of thing. And I agreed with her. So I feel though now I can talk about this topic with a little better perspective.

Obviously, we all read in various publications or see in the news about presidencies that end. Sometimes they end quite badly. And that got me thinking about what I see as in most cases, what I think of as the finite life of a college presidency.

I’m going to specifically talk about presidencies in small rural colleges. I think that the forces at work at large universities are so varied that it’s much harder to draw specific lessons, or the lessons are sufficiently different that I don’t feel that they are close enough to my own experience so that I can speak knowledgeably about them.

The average length of a college presidency in the United States is about four years. This is a completely misleading figure. What would appear to sort of artificially shorten that figure, make it seem as if, wow, that’s not a very long time, is that of course it includes disastrous presidencies that implode quickly. You do read about people who take presidencies and that presidency ends six months into their tenure. But I would say that in fact four years is longer than the average. I think that the true average is shorter. And the reason why is because there are plenty of presidents who are not fired from their jobs and they don’t resign abruptly. Instead they reach an agreement with a board that doesn’t want them; they reached an agreement with that board that they’re going to ride out, for example, their existing contract or the current year of their contract. And for the rest of that time they’re not absentee, but they can often be largely absentee because the board understands that they’re going to seek other employment. And so the effective date at which they stopped doing a full-fledged job as president is earlier than the official date when they leave.

As to the presidencies that implode quickly, we’ve all seen some of those lately. There’s been some pretty amazing examples in the news. Those can be fascinating, but they’re not all that common, so I’m not really going to focus on those. However, I think it’s worth looking at what the life cycle of what I’ll call a “normal” presidency. There are two relationship deteriorations that occur for every president who’s college sits in a relatively small community. And it’s very important to understand those two deteriorations. I won’t say that they’re inevitable. I would say they’re extremely common. The first is well-known and people discuss it all the time. But the second one is barely discussed, although I actually think that it is far more important because it is actually the one that better defines the lifecycle.

Let’s start with the, the first one that’s well-known: the honeymoon period. A president takes a job and coasts into town on a wave of Goodwill and optimism. It’s like a marriage, but unlike a marriage, it’s between a lot of people, and most of them have entered into it involuntarily. But they want it to work because they want to be part of a successful organization and they want their school to be successful.

The honeymoon period ends in three possible ways. It dies a natural death, it’s murdered, or it dies as a result of suicide. So let’s take a look at each of those.

First, the natural death of the honeymoon. Now this really just means that the relationship has reached a sort of equilibrium. The employees of the college now want to receive as much as they’re willing to give (or as is sometimes the case, they want to receive more than they’re willing to give). In either case, their willingness to give is lessened. They’re not as willing to hold their tongue when angered. They’re not as willing to withhold their opinion when they disagree and they’re not as willing to suspend judgment when a decision has been made with which they disagree.

I don’t regard the natural death of the honeymoon is bad. Relationships should reach a sort of equilibrium.

Sometimes the honeymoon period is murdered. Most commonly, the murderer is an external force that acts upon the college and requires the president to make one or more wildly unpopular decisions. Maybe state funding is decreased and a department or program headed by someone beloved and longer serving than the president gets the ax. Maybe there are new athletic regulations that make the conference more competitive and suddenly the school’s perennial winning team has a losing record and isn’t the source of pride anymore. Maybe there’s a tragedy on campus, a violent act perhaps to which the president reacts in ways that are later determined to be inadequate, insensitive, et cetera. The list is really endless since many outside forces act on campuses, but the end result is the same: the president simply doesn’t have enough political capital or goodwill to overcome the negative reaction to what’s happening. He or she simply screws up. I don’t think that presidents can escape the bell curve of performance any more than any other type of employee. Presidents are people and they’re flawed. They make dumb decisions sometimes, and if that decision is made around the wrong people or a little too publicly or creates enough bad consequences for the institution, no amount of political capital or goodwill can sustain the honeymoon period and it dies.

Most honeymoon periods end not with a bang, but with a whimper. The president notices that his cabinet members are slightly less deferential. His faculty always opinionated to begin with, express those opinions more forcefully and in less flattering ways. The local press begins to describe problems. Eventually a critical editorial appears or maybe a critical letter to the editor from the public. Most presidents could not exactly pinpoint when their honeymoon ends, but many can pinpoint when they realize that it had already ended.

There’s no hard and fast rule about how long a presidential honeymoon lasts. I can only say that I’ve noted two trends. First, the larger the institution, the longer the honeymoon tends to be. Probably because the president is personally more insulated from most of the institution. Second, the more unlucky that president is or the more incompetent he or she is, the shorter the honeymoon. So except for cases so rare that they proved the rule, the ending of the honeymoon is the first inevitability of the presidency.

It is the second inevitability that interests me more: the progressive net loss of Goodwill between presidents and the communities their colleges serve. So what is the deterioration of that relationship? How does it happen?

There’s an old saying: “Friends come and go, but enemies remain.” College presidents are of course in a sense, CEOs of large organizations. Nowhere is that more critical than in a small community or in a community where the college is one of the largest employers. So when I say small community, I’m talking anywhere from 2000 people to about 20,000 people. Presumably a college is going to turn over five to 10% of its employees every year, some voluntarily, some involuntarily. So let’s say for the purposes of illustration that the college turns over, about 7% of its employees, half of them involuntarily at a college that employees, 200 people total. That’s about seven involuntary dismissals each year. For the most part, those people live and work nearby in the community. And for the most part they are not happy about being dismissed, and in a small college in a small community, the president gets some or all of the blame. So each year the president permanently damages his or her relationship with those seven people.

But it’s not that that simple, because those people have spouses, children, friends, etc. So each one of them represents a circle of anywhere from five to 15 people who are just as upset at the president as the employee was. To make it simple, let’s assume that each one represents 10 people. So that’s a total of 70 people a year who are angry with the president and it’s likely that anger is permanent in a town of say 10,000 people. That means that staff turnover alone is destroying the president’s relationships with an additional 70 people a year. And after just five years, that’s 350 angry people in a community of 10,000 in 12 years. It’s 10% of the entire population, and that’s just personnel matters. There are also academic program cancellations, disbanding of sports teams; perhaps it’s the ending of a long held tradition, or the removal of a beloved facility at the end of its life. Any of these things can anger hundreds of people in one fell swoop in any given year. I remember once I proposed simply changing the seats in one of our performing venues, a theater. I proposed changing them to more modern seats. And you would have thought that I had proposed closing the college. Years later, some people are still talking about it. We never changed the seats.

So let’s assume that just 30 people are unhappy with the decisions that the colleges made and for which the president asked to take ultimate responsibility, in addition to the people who are upset at their termination. That’s a total of 100 ruined relationships in one year in a town of 10,000 people. Is that sustainable? How is that sustainable? It’s not. It’s simply not possible to build a hundred new relationships from scratch every year in a town of 10,000 people. And in the unlikely event that someone could, sooner or later you will run out of people with whom to build those new relationships.

So this is why this deterioration is relevant for presidents in small towns. For presidents who live in large metropolitan area of a couple million people, angering a couple hundred people a year probably feels like barely a ripple in public sentiment. There are variations, of course – the small town or the community may be thriving, for example. In such cases, program cancellations or personnel cuts due to budget constraints may not be necessary. So the number of people negatively affected by the president’s decisions is smaller. The president may also be a very effective leader otherwise and develop very strong relationships with key players in the community that creates a sort of floor of support that can offset general public sentiment. I would say that it’s actually extremely rare to create a true floor beyond which public support cannot fall without a number of external factors being in place.

So this isn’t about being a good president or a skillful president or having the president sort of sit down and really evaluate him or herself. That last one is of course important. What it’s about is that there is a context, and that the context produces what I see as an almost mathematical inevitability, that erodes the effectiveness of presidencies in smaller communities.

What does this mean for the effective life cycle of the president? Well, I would say that every president, for the most part, they arrive at their institution, and even if they’re familiar with the institution, they actually still need to take some time learning their way around parts of the job and learning about the people involved. And they have to learn about the parts of the institution that they didn’t have access to when they weren’t the president. And that means there’s a learning curve. There’s a time when you familiarize yourself with the institution and its culture. And I would say in most cases, even if the president is coming to the institution from the outside, that learning period actually roughly corresponds to the honeymoon period. The next thing that happens is that the president presumably is going to use what he or she learned during that initial phase to make changes, ideally to innovate in different ways. Some of those are going to succeed and some of those are going to fail. But the ones that fail will, of course, jeopardize relationships because there is a very low tolerance for failure in general in our culture, and of course some of the failures may harm people. But there is a critical window, approximately year two to year six, in which presidents can get a lot done. They can really innovate, they can really do new things because a critical mass of opposition has not yet formed.

That critical mass of opposition is really just a bunch of different individuals and groups who have their own agendas, their own issues that they may be upset about, but at a certain point they can coalesce. At that point, their influence is of course far greater together. They create a force that acts against what the president wants to do at that institution and that force will grow over time. At a certain point it will make it more difficult for the president to innovate. In my opinion, at every point in a presidency, there is a balance between the desire to innovate and the opportunities that present themselves. When they present themselves, you have the desirability of the initiative on the one hand, and you have the opposition and its effectiveness on the other. At some point, they sort of cancel each other out, and it becomes much more difficult for that president to be effective.

When does that happen? In my experience, it’s typically going to happen by about year 10 of a presidency except in some unusual cases, so 10 or fewer years. There are exceptions to this of course, but in most cases, particularly in smaller towns, I think that a president who has been at an institution 10 or more years is probably not going to be as effective as an innovator as they were earlier in their presidency. And that’s not because they’re just not coming up with the new ideas. It’s because the forces acting against innovation are simply greater. And at that point, I would say it’s time for that person to move on. By the way, it’s not really necessary to guess whether or not this shift has occurred. Most good colleges are going to be collecting data about employee sentiment and public sentiment and that data should reveal a generic level of support for the president and for his new, his or her new initiatives. My prediction is that although of course that level of support is going to go up or down slightly depending on when individual data points are gathered, I think what you’ll find is an overall erosion of the support of support for the president in say, the second five years of a normal presidency.

Now, all of this probably sounds pretty depressing, particularly if you’re a president or you want to be, but I don’t think it’s depressing and here’s why.

There are lots of inescapable forces that act on presidencies and this is just one of them. It’s just a context. I don’t think there’s actually wrong with a president understanding that within a context they have a limited lifespan in which to do their best work. I think that may motivate some people to act.

Second, understanding that this process is happening can be helpful. A president who understands, say the mathematical nature of erosion of public support will be less distressed by that erosion when they understand that in certain circumstances it may be inevitable.

Third, and for me this is the most important, is that the school does not exist for the president. The president works for the school, not the other way around. The fact is if that for any reason the president has become less effective than whoever their generic replacement might be, then that president needs to do what’s best for the school and move on. They need to do what’s best for the school because that’s what’s best for the students and that’s presumably why the school exists: for the students’ welfare, not the president’s.

Presidents need to see themselves as perhaps temporary caretakers of the school, and I don’t use “caretakers” in the sense that the president is intended to maintain the status quo. I simply mean that the president’s role there is smaller than the school. The school is bigger than the president and presidents honestly have a tendency to forget that.

So I don’t think that what I’m describing is depressing any more than I think that gravity is depressing. Presidents need to understand that they are part of a larger context and I’m simply describing part of that larger context. What I’m describing doesn’t occur 100% of the time and I think it’s far less likely to occur in very large communities at very large universities, and certainly doesn’t in times of plenty when hard decisions don’t need to be made. In those cases, the president can maintain a far, far better relationship with all of his or her constituents. But if you’re a president of a relatively small school and a relatively small community during a period in which resources are scarce, you have to understand that these forces are very, very likely to act on your presidency. You need to recognize that, and understand why it’s happening. You need to appreciate and accept the extent to which you are contributing to it and to what extent factors beyond your control are contributing to it. Only then are you going to do everything you can do and then you recognize that the cycle has run its course for your presidency. You need to understand that, recognize that and you need to step aside. You need to make way for the next person who could innovate more effectively than you can. That’s what you owe the school.