You are here

The Presidency Job: Public versus Private

University Business, March 2013
Wooed away: Carolyn Martin recently departed the University of Wisconsin-Madison for the less public confines of private Amherst College in Massachusetts.

The search for and first years in office of a new president at a public university can carry extra burdens, say experts on those institutions. For starters, says presidential search consultant John Thornburgh, the vetting of candidates becomes a more complicated proposition because of the transparency usually practiced by state schools.

“It’s much easier for private universities and colleges, where all this takes place behind closed doors,” Thornburgh notes, adding that the situation becomes all the more difficult when candidates for public university presidencies already hold high positions at other schools and when past records are subject to the scrutiny of the press and the general public.

University of Connecticut President Susan Herbst notes that her university proved an exception to that rule in the hiring process. “[UConn] was one of the few public universities that could undertake a complete search with complete confidentiality. That gave the search committee an exponential advantage,” she says.
At private universities, the same kind of confidentiality also prevails when it comes to doing the president’s job, says Richard Greenwald, the chairman of the Board of Trustees for Drexel University, a private institution in Philadephia. “You do not have every issue discussed in an open session,” he says, noting that at a public university, what people say in open sessions tends to be more scripted.

“It can look like kabuki theater,” Greenwald observes. “And there are reporters all over the place.”

The regular turnover of politically appointed boards, and the predilections of sitting governors also come into play at public institutions, a continuing factor even further into a presidency.

“When the governor changes, the board changes. Imagine being a president or chancellor at a major institution as the political winds change,” says Carolyn Martin, who resigned in 2011 after serving for nearly four years as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison to become president of prestigious, and private, Amherst College (Mass.).

The tipping point at Wisconsin, Martin continues, came as she attempted to win greater autonomy for the Madison campus, including its own human resources system and the right to raise faculty salaries without approval from the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents, which governs another dozen state universities. Although that initiative received the support of current Governor Scott Walker, the state legislature and the Regents were not receptive.

“The board has a responsibility for the entire system and is built on political points. It has a very difficult time understanding and focusing on what might work for an individual institution,” notes Martin. She admits that she would not have considered moving to a private institution if her proposal had gone through.
“I didn’t think I could push the autonomy initiative any further,” Martin says, so I was open to the overtures from Amherst.”