Higher ed presidents are serving shorter tenures. New research shows why

Presidents hired from within the institution tend to serve shorter terms

College and university presidents are leaving—both involuntarily and of their own free will—at increasingly high rates. Two recent studies examine the details and reasons behind this trend.

The first study was conducted by Michael Harris, an associate professor of higher education at Southern Methodist University (SMU) and SMU grad students Molly Ellis and Brittany Barker. The researchers focused on 214 private and public institutions at the master's and doctoral levels, zeroing in on presidential transitions between 1988 and 2013.

The study found that after 2007, the number of presidents who involuntarily left their posts increased faster than those who left voluntarily. Around 44% of presidential transitions occurred in the final six years of the 25-year study, from 2008 to 2013. However, in spite of the timing, experts say the increase was not entirely driven by the economics of the recession. Reasons for involuntary departures included:

  • Broken relationships with governing boards;
  • Widespread campus dissatisfaction;
  • Athletics controversies;
  • Political controversies;
  • Financial impropriety;
  • Sexual misconduct;
  • Lapses in integrity; and
  • Plagiarism.

Departures due to financial impropriety—meaning the president misused the institution's funds—made up more than one-fifth of the list. However, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, the former president of George Washington University and co-author of the book Presidencies Derailed: Why University Leaders Fail and How to Prevent It says the phrase is often used as "an excuse" to oust a president.

"Redecorating the house is only an issue in times of austerity," Trachtenberg says. 

Ease the transition from a long-serving college president to a new leader

The second study, conducted by Amanda Rutherford, an assistant professor of public management at Indiana University at Bloomington (IU), and Jon Lozano, an IU doctoral student, looked at more than 200 presidential departures between 1993 and 2011.

Researchers found that presidents hired from outside the institution remained in their posts for longer periods of time than those who were hired from within.

One possible reason for this phenomenon, the researchers speculated, is that outside hires often come from companies where they had also been a president or leader.

The study also found that when these presidents worked for large governing boards or Republican governors, they tended to serve a shorter tenure (Schmidt, Chronicle of Higher Education, 11/10).  

Read about tenure caps at small private colleges


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