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Change is good

James Martin and James E.Samels of the Education Alliance discuss how to manage presidential transition.
University Business, Mar 2005

Nearly one-quarter of the nation's colleges and universities are in some stage of leadership transition at any given time. Yet, for all its frequency, the process is one that is often fraught with difficulties. In their book Presidential Transition in Higher Education: Managing Leadership Change (Johns Hopkins, 2004), James Martin and James E. Samels of The Education Alliance (, brought together a number of higher education professionals to discuss the personal and often political problems that accompany a new presidency, as well as best practices and strategies for smooth transitions. Martin and Samels recently spoke with University Business Editor Tim Goral about the changing presidential landscape, what it means to the future of higher education, and how IHEs can better manage change.

Samels: There are several reasons. First is the search process that we in higher ed have designed. American higher education is so process-happy about ensuring that every constituency is represented, that many searches produce men and women who are of less internal fortitude, and are less opinionated--they end up not wanting to offend any constituency. The downside of that is what happens when tough decisions need to be made.

More importantly, I think these people who apply for presidencies don't understand the pressures of raising money, as opposed to just sitting in a president's office pontificating. The pressure to build external partnerships, almost like a corporation, is enormous. The pressure to do more with less by effectuating the economy of scale, efficiency of operations, and nonduplication of programs--these people have to hit the ground running from day one, but it's a much different job than they thought it would be.

Martin: And in many cases, they are people who have been faculty members and have spent their lives on campuses. Although that trend is changing, it is still prevalent. When we interviewed almost 200 presidents over four-and-a-half years, what we found, essentially, was that they were lonely. These new presidents had been "kicked off" the campus within weeks of receiving the appointment and told to raise money.

Martin: No. Raising money involves a person facing rejection often, and it involves a person who needs a lot of spine, especially when the board chair says, "Go back and ask that person again." These presidents are just not used to that. So they find the job is not the way they want it to be.

Samels: I'd say it's two things: First, there is a set of expectations of entitlement of access from the various stakeholders in the community. It comes down to faculty politics and student empowerment. Presidencies now have to be all things to all people, and that's a very difficult thing to do. Second, when one takes on a presidency they often think more of administrative work than personal dynamics. Presidencies are a relationship-based job assignment. The sustainability of a presidency is built more on relationships than it is on transactions.

Martin: It's a situation that a lot of people know a little about: What does a president really do? I would add that a lot of institutions, even after they've gone through a slick search process, don't really know what they want him or her to do. They don't have a clear mission, and that's why you find presidents being told, "go develop a strategic plan" or "go find a vision--you told us you can do that; you told us you had vision." So the president--who is already lonely, traveling, and raising money--comes back on campus and often has to deal with these old, wise sages that have been there for 22 years and want to do things the way they are used to. It is an unpleasant reality off campus and when you go back home again.

Samels: Absolutely. And they also talk about the students in terms of customers. But do you know who abhors the use of term CEO for the president, and abhors the use of the word customer for the students? It's the faculty. There's a huge traditional faculty legacy that goes against that image. But, in fact, we have clients who have renamed their job "president and CEO" because they think they can get more corporate doors open by having that title.

The pressure to
build external
partnerships is

Martin: However, if you find a president who treats the campus like a business, but also respects that one of the reasons he or she treats it that way is to provide added research dollars and professional development dollars, often the faculty members are quite comfortable with that arrangement. Now, that's not to be confused with the president who just doesn't get it and often wants to imprint the campus, saying, "We're going to do it my way; I was brought in here as an agent of change." No, if the money that results from running the school more effectively goes to professional development and research there is a coexistence that works fine.

Samels: First, don't assume you'll have a one- or two-year honeymoon--these days, honeymoons are more like a month to three months. Just because you got elected president doesn't mean you don't have to absolutely nurture the leadership of the institution. Even if the recorded vote was unanimous, there are likely a few trustees who have significant questions. There's an old saying: Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Get to know your detractors.

Second is staffing. Nearly every president told us that, if they could do one thing over again, they would have vanquished their adversaries sooner. We had one situation where the chairman of the board felt the best thing he could do is give long-term contracts to every vice president on the eve of the election of the new president. Not a good move! New presidents get a right to name their own team without getting hurt by academic feather-bedding.

Third, I would insist on a clean audit when I come on board, so I know exactly what I'm getting. I don't want to get hung with the indiscretions of my predecessor.

Martin: We also found that the relationship with the chief advancement officer was often not clear enough. We already spoke about the pressures to raise money, but what does that really mean? Every president had a different perception of the level or percentage of money that he or she was to raise, versus the level that the advancement officer was raising. That relationship with the chief advancement officer is often unexamined, and the president often gets taken advantage of.

Second, use the dean of students as a resource. That person can often be a real confidante to a president and a translator of the presidential prerogative.

And finally is the question of brand versus marketing. Every college and university that we worked with markets itself, and is now pretty comfortable using that as a verb, but very few of them have developed a brand, or even grasped how significant the advantages of a brand in the marketplace are. So you need to have a good sense of the difference between brand and market, and work toward a brand.

Samels: Absolutely! When the trustees see that the enrollment numbers dipped, they say, "Do something about it. Let's increase that number by 10 percent." Or, "Let's see 5 percent better retention." Or, "Financial aid discounting is at 40 percent--we should be at 20 percent." Do you know how long it takes to impact those kinds of metrics? So, yes, there are unrealistic expectations, both in end results as well as in the timeline.

Martin: Some presidents are pushing back. We've found that some of the female presidents were very adroit at shaping expectations earlier in their presidencies; but I would say that, in the grand scheme of things, for the next 10 or 15 years we are going to live in a world in which presidential expectations are higher than is healthy for those in the position. That's another reason that presidential tenures are continuing to decrease. As board members become younger and have themselves been raised on the higher expectations of a consumer society, you are going to see younger presidents in excruciating situations who need to develop things quickly. That will rationalize, but I bet it will be 10 years before it reaches some kind of stasis.

Samels: I'm a businessman so my view is that it has a very positive impact. I think these so called non-traditional candidates are actually going to become more traditional. It's not unnatural for a place like Babson College [Mass.], which is one of the last of the 15 freestanding business schools to occasionally recruit presidents who had very good experiences in the corporate sector. But it is unusual when you have large public universities turn to the corporate model. I think the impact is to produce a better quality and a more diverse pool of candidates that represent a whole universe of perspectives. Twenty or 30 years ago, as Jim described, the typical president was somebody in the faculty, who got along with everybody, was popular, worked himself up to department chair--and all of a sudden he became president of the university.

are higher than
is healthy for
those in the

I think the influence of corporate America coming onto the radar screen of eligible candidates provides the kind of competitive zeal and prospective that higher education needs. Not running a university like a business, but being more businesslike in running a university.

Martin: Because members of the boards of trustees are wanting to raise the stakes themselves. They want the new president to walk on water; so they raise the expectations quickly. A lot of trustees--who themselves often come from the corporate sector rather than from higher education--believe that a corporate head is just going to get it and is certainly going to respond more quickly and not get bogged down in the process orientation of higher education.

I would raise a few yellow flags, though. Although they run the institution in a more businesslike manner, we have seen foundering on the shoals of academic governance. The corporate president might begin to believe his only mission--set from the board--is to raise money and spend time off campus. Over time that creates absent and distant chief executives who are not always the people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and, when the accreditations come around, be the ones to speak for the institution--as presidents did 100 years ago. That's a big change.

Martin: That chapter was the first one we are aware of that deals not only with spouses, but with partners in same-sex relationships. The most important thing is the institution should have some expectations for the presidential spouse, whatever the person's background or history. And, yes, we are seeing more of those spouses employed at the institution. But have a plan and be open about employing the president's spouse to achieve mission at the institution.

Samels: That's not to say that most universities should have a contract for the president's spouse. But, if they are planning on that spouse either receiving compensation or producing the deliverables, it should be memorialized, it should be objectified, and be measurable. It shouldn't be idiosyncratic for somebody to take them out as an exception later on.

I think it is a terrible way to go, by the way. My personal view is that presidential spouses should be seen and heard, but not paid. Why do I feel that way? Because the perception of conflict, and the perception of double-dipping is inescapable. The exceptions to that, obviously, is when you have a situation where you are not going to get the best president unless you get the wife, too. And the wife, by the way, is a polymer scientist or a laser optic specialist. In other words, if she has something separate of value to offer, then absolutely--I call that a "two-fer." But paying for being the president's wife, or for being a stay-at-home husband, is the wrong way to go.

Martin: But it has become an issue because times are changing and presidential family constellations are changing. To get the good candidates, there are times that the president--either male or female--has to say, "You know what, my spouse has been working this way for the last few jobs I have been in and I think it is time we addressed it." So times are changing and institutions need to have principles, but they must also be upfront in dealing with the issue early on prior to arrival.

Martin: The first thing we noticed was the "would've, should've, could've" kind of phenomenon. The presidents who read the book and then came to talk with us were saying they wished they had had this information sooner--"I listened to my board chair because I thought I should, because he was the one who brought me aboard, but I should have listened when my instincts told me early on I should be careful with this person." They needed a book that showed they could have been bolder sooner.

Samels: Some of the presidents said they didn't know they should have negotiated this or that into their package. Or they didn't realize that if they got in a fight with the board, corporation counsel represents the board, not them. So there has been a certain level of naivete of presidential candidates about the politics of the presidential appointments process, and the short tenure and the pressures of the job, once they get to the presidency.

Martin: They also confirmed that our instincts were right about how short honeymoons are. There is often trepidation at an institution about losing a president--not because he or she meant so much to the school and can't be replaced. Forget about that. The board is concerned because they're going to take a hit in the marketplace for a 12- to 18-month period, so they really want the presidential search to be over. One reason you are seeing more and more executive search firms is that institutions want it done quickly--aided and abated by the corporate mentality of the number of the board members--so they don't take a hit in the marketplace. The president that comes in and is told to fix things immediately faces enormous pressure.

Martin: There is a point at which if it shortens much further the institute will be materially affected. According to the most recent American Council on Education [] survey of presidents, for the first time tenures have reached a plateau. It's still as short as it's ever been in the last 30 years, but we're in a holding pattern. But yes, I think presidential tenures can and will shorten, because the average age of presidents across the board is in the mid- to late-50s, and as those people reach retirement age, we'll see people receiving presidencies younger--late 30s or early 40s. Then in about six or seven years, as they hit their late 40s, they'll start to wonder what else they can do with their career. We'll see a rise in serial presidencies--people with three or four presidencies in one lifetime. And we'll start to see presidents pick and choose, like students who no longer feel the need to stay at one institution for four years, and transfer. We'll see presidents transferring and we'll also see consortium arrangements in which presidents work together as a team.

There has been a certain level of naivete about the politics of the process.

Samels: We were recently at a college that has a 32-year-old president. This young man believed he'd have seven to nine careers over his lifetime. We'll start to see very young and very mobile presidents, who will say "Five years? Oh no, I couldn't stay that long."