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Stephen Trachtenberg's book offers advice to higher ed leadership

"Presidencies Derailed" examines relationships between presidents and boards of trustees
University Business, August 2013
Stephen Trachtenberg is president emeritus of George Washington University.
Stephen Trachtenberg is president emeritus of George Washington University.

Not too long ago, the average tenure of a college or university president was 8.5 years, but with the increasing demands of the job, it’s no surprise that number is shrinking. A new book called Presidencies Derailed: Why University Leaders Fail and How to Prevent It (Johns Hopkins, 2013) sheds light on the often acrimonious problems that develop among a president, the board, and the institution.

Co-authored by George Washington University President Emeritus Stephen Trachtenberg, GWU research professor Gerald Kauvar, and E. Grady Bogue, former chancellor of Louisiana State University in Shreveport, it offers advice on how leaders can avoid these situations. Trachtenberg recently spoke about the book with University Business.

Let’s start with how this book came about.

I was having coffee with Gerry Kauvar, who is my assistant here at the university, and we were saying, “You know, an awful lot of presidents seem to be getting votes of no confidence and stepping down before the ink is dry on their contracts.” So we tracked that for a few weeks and discovered that our suspicion was accurate—that it was a lot of people. Eventually we teamed up with Grady Bogue, and next thing you know, a couple of years later we’ve got a book.

In the span of a year, some 50 college and university presidents left office before their contracts had expired. Is that an unusually high number? How does it compare to other periods?

It’s hard to get data from other periods. It’s also very hard to get causation, because when people leave, there are often financial arrangements and accommodations and nondisclosure agreements and so on. We were fortunate in having Grady and his four doctoral students. They were able to penetrate some of those arrangements and meet with presidents who were willing, under promise of confidentiality, to talk.

We also got two presidents, Michael Garrison from West Virginia University and William Frawley from University of Mary Washington, who were willing to write about their experiences.

We heard extraordinary stories. There was the story of a guy whose wife was having an affair with a vice president. You can fire the vice president, but you can’t very well fire the wife. So this goes on for a while, until the board says, “We’ve got to clean this up.” So they end up firing the president and he takes his wife with him. The result is that, first, the guy has his wife cheating on him, then he loses his job—and he’s innocent of anything.

You mentioned nondisclosure agreements. Don’t they leave the public to draw its own conclusions, whether right or wrong? How is that good for a university?

I’m not sure it is, but you want to make the problem go away, and you don’t want allegations flying back and forth. So, for the same reasons that there are these nondisclosure agreements in other forms of commerce and activity, they have drifted into university work as well. It’s the result of lawyering, of course. Nobody wants to get into misrepresentations about character and that kind of thing publicly.

In the end, the issue gets settled. People shake hands, a little money is exchanged, and they go away. It’s the same as plea bargaining. How is that good for society? Wouldn’t it be better if every case was litigated and the truth was revealed, witnesses were called? But it can’t be done.

How can better academic searches avoid these problems?

If the work of search committees is stronger, and sounder, and more informed, when they hire somebody, many of the melancholy results that are revealed in these cases we talk about can be avoided. I don’t know if you can ever get it exactly right.

Only President Bush could peer into the eyes of Putin and see that he was a decent man. Most of us don’t have that kind of clairvoyant capacity. If people could peer into the eyes of other people, we’d have less divorce in this country than we do. People make very serious decisions about other people and it turns out they are wrong. So perfection is not going to be achieved here. But it’s an effort at doing better and seeing what we can learn from mistakes, which is the human experience.

You wrote that a college president’s success or failure doesn’t really correlate to a particular history or background.

Right. It’s a strange business, because we make up these characteristics that we think we are seeking in university presidents. Are those really the skill sets that we need to get the job done?

A reporter called me yesterday about Mark Nordenberg, who is stepping down as chancellor at the University of Pittsburgh this month. He’s leaving after almost 19 years, and apparently he’s done an extraordinary job. The reporter said the search committee has set the bar very high for his successor. In other words, if they had those criteria when they hired him, he never would have gotten the job.

Are we asking too much of the new president who comes on board following that kind of success? Should there be a period where his or her style is allowed to develop?

You can’t expect a guy to walk in on day one and have the capacities of someone that’s been on the job for a decade. I discovered, as I went along in my tenure, I could get more done with one phone call than I used to be able to get done in a day because I knew who to call. I knew what to ask. There was trust. I had a lot of experience.

So yes, to some extent there should be that grace period. But it’s expensive, and you can’t let it go too long without saying, “Hey, is it soup yet?”

You wrote that only “the least provocative candidate” can survive such a scrutiny process.

If you don’t do anything, you can frequently hang on for a long time because you don’t get anyone mad at you. But you don’t get a lot done either. So, if mere survival is your goal, well, okay. But if you want to achieve something, then you have to be prepared to take risks, and sometimes those are provocative. And then there are constituencies and stakeholders who are upset.

Not to mention the board of trustees.

Right. And failure is not always on the side of the presidents. Sometimes it’s the board. We saw what happened last year with Teresa Sullivan at the University of Virginia, for example. That was clearly a board of trustees behaving badly. Had they behaved appropriately, according to their own guidelines and bylaws, they could have dismissed that president successfully. Whether she deserved it or not is another matter. But what you had was incompetence on the board in following their own guidelines and an impatience to get something done without due process.

Sometimes there’s actual bad will. Sometimes there is good will. And sometimes people really do have different points of view about the welfare of the institution.

But sometimes you’ll get a board member who only wants to knock out the president so that they can take a shot at becoming the president. It’s interesting—all the behavior that we see in politics and in corporate life is migrating into the university.

And increasingly, corporate compensation schemes are migrating into the university as well—the bonus packages, second homes, and so on. The job is becoming so challenging that it requires people who have skills which would make them competent as not only university administrators but as corporate executives as well. And, increasingly, they are getting compensated like corporate executives—but they are also being held to a higher accountability standard.

Accountability crosses over into conduct. What’s your take on Gordon Gee, who is stepping down as president at Ohio State University following some disparaging remarks he made about Notre Dame and other schools?

Gordon got careless and cavalier. He had ducked so many bullets over so many years he probably came to the conclusion he couldn’t be shot. I am a great fan of Gordon Gee. I think of him as a friend. But what he said was clearly off the reservation. That doesn’t make him any less iconic as a president who has served at a number of institutions very successfully over a long period of time.

People say foolish and indiscreet things, even the smartest of them. And what we have to understand, increasingly, is that there is no privacy anymore. I read somewhere that when you walk down a street in a city like Manhattan or London, you get your picture taken a dozen times between one corner and another from all the security cameras. People are watching and listening. You really have to be careful what you are saying, especially if you are a public person.

There are still many stories that have happened since you finished the book. Is there a follow-up coming?

I don’t think this is the last book on the subject. I don’t think we’ve written the definitive book. But I think given the state of the literature, this is pretty good for a start. We are talking about doing a companion book which will look at particularly successful presidents and ask what can we learn from their experiences.

It’s interesting. People who are not always popular are sometimes extraordinarily successful. And sometimes their successes are not always evident during their tenure. They didn’t look as good then as they do looking back on them later.