School presidents are serving shorter terms. Here's why.

Changes to boards, search tactics, and higher ed itself

In years past, tenured college and university presidents held 20- to 30-year terms. This is no longer the case, due to a number of changes facing school administration. 

One reason is that boards are taking a stronger role in running colleges. Previously, presidents had near-autonomy to make decisions for their institutions, meaning they were rarely challenged by board members. More often than not, the board members agreed with the president anyway.

Today, members of the board hold more diverse views, making them less likely to agree with the president on all matters.

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With increased board involvement, presidents must constantly work to meet unique demands, which, on top of increasingly complex fundraising and political relations, can challenge presidents to the point that they resign.

The second reason for shorter presidential terms could be that many colleges have changed the way they appoint presidents. Institutions increasingly turn toward national search firms rather than doing the hiring internally. These firms often rely heavily on a candidate's resume, vetting the potential presidents based on work experience rather than personality and long-term leadership skills.

But the presidents that seem best on paper may not always be the most qualified to lead an institution. 

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The third, and perhaps most important, reason for shortened terms is that higher ed is changing more quickly today than ever before. Institutional priorities are fluctuating at a rapid pace, dramatically affecting what the school requires of its president. One year, a school might need a president who excels in fundraising, and the next year a president who champions student engagement.

Shifting priorities require presidents to be fully adaptable, which is difficult to achieve while still succeeding in specific areas.

What it means to truly be a transformational leader changes constantly, which is why, as Bill Crawford, columnist for the Mississippi Business Journal, notes, "Its's just hard to pick good presidents, and even harder to be a good president over time" (Carter, Education Dive, 10/31; Crawford, Mississippi Business Journal 10/30).

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