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The Tumultuous Presidency

A rash of high-profile firings offers some lessons in starting out
University Business, March 2013
Back on board: Reinstated University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan meets with a class of U.Va. undergraduates. (Dan Addison/U.Va. Public Affairs)

The Universities of Oregon, Illinois, and Virginia have plenty in common. They all rate as leading research institutions, boast a high-achieving graduate and undergraduate student body, and field formidable athletic teams that compete regularly for national championships.

But what these premier schools have had most in common recently is the ouster of presidents early in their tenures. The reasons given for these sudden departures are manifold—not being aggressive enough in pursuing significant reforms, being too reform-aggressive, and manifesting an early disconnect with either the hiring board or the faculty.

While some of the decisions to part ways have been strictly private—last September the University of Tulsa (Okla.) fired Geoffrey Orsak 74 days after arrival without giving an official reason—most have been embarrassingly public, generating national headlines, as well as considerable reaction by faculty, students, and alumni.

The most notable departures have involved Virginia’s Teresa Sullivan, Oregon’s Richard Lariviere, and Michael Hogan at Illinois.

In a league of its own, of course, was the November 2011 firing, and subsequent indictment last November, of Penn State University’s President Graham Spanier for his role in covering up child sex abuse allegations by former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, who was convicted this past June on 45 counts.
Before news of the Penn State scandal broke less than a week before he was dismissed, Spanier had been highly regarded during his more than 15 years of leading the school.

Whatever the reasons for presidential firings and forced resignations, say close observers of these episodes, school leaders are facing a new era of scrutiny, job insecurity and, in some cases, outright tumult as they try to do their jobs. “It’s been a wild season,” says presidential search consultant John Thornburgh of the Pittsburgh-based firm Witt/Kieffer. “We’ve seen a rapid-fire sequence of very high-profile presidents going down in flames.”

Gone Today, Back Three Weeks from Now

Another high-profile—and perhaps the oddest—example of a recent presidential dismissal took place this past June at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, when the school’s governing Board of Visitors fired Teresa Sullivan, only to reinstate her before the end of the month.

According to an email sent to its entire campus community in early June, the U.Va. board accepted Sullivan’s resignation in light of “philosophical differences.” Thornburgh suggests that Sullivan was fired after just two years “for not being aggressive enough in pushing new initiatives.” 

“The board said in its public statements that there were a number of issues facing the university,” adds Law Professor George Cohen, who became chair of the U.Va.

faculty senate days before Sullivan’s departure. Board members “raised issues such as ‘How are we going to deal with the decline in federal grant funding and how are we going to increase financial aid and faculty salaries?’ And it wasn’t, ‘We’ll give you another year.’”

“What also came out,” notes Gretchen Bataille, the senior vice president for programs and services at the American Council for Education and former chancellor at the University of North Texas, “was that board members felt she wasn’t moving fast enough on research and technology issues,” including the advancement of online education.

While Sullivan was diplomatic about her departure, she did not go quietly. “We are all aware that the U.Va. needs to change,” she said in a public statement
of her own. “Apparently, the area of disagreement appears to be just how that change should occur and at what pace.”

A more forceful rebuttal came in the immediate and intense reaction by the school’s faculty—whose senate unanimously passed a resolution expressing no confidence in the board’s action—U.Va. students, and even the state’s governor, who threatened to fire the entire 15-member board if it did not restore order to U.Va.’s house. Less than three weeks after the Board of Visitors’ original announcement, all 15 voted for Sullivan’s reinstatement.

“They’ve gone through the equivalent of marriage counseling. They’re both listening better,” observes Thornburgh, although he maintains that the union was problematic from the start. “There was real disconnect between the agenda of the board and how it was communicated when [Sullivan] was hired. If the intention was to getting into new business and new models of teaching and learning, the board members should have been more vocal from day one.”
“Communication is key,” agrees Cohen. “You can’t have effective governance if you don’t have effective communication with the board and the president.”

Overreach in Oregon?

Taking a more aggressive tack early in a presidency can have its consequences, as well, as former presidents Richard Lariviere and Michael Hogan discovered over the past three years at the University of Oregon and the University of Illinois, respectively.

Lariviere, who became Oregon’s president in 2009, was gone by July of 2012, having run afoul of the Oregon State Board of Higher Education for being too aggressive in his attempts at reform, especially his bold idea of making the university self-sufficient in its finance and governance.

Dubbed the New Partnership plan, Lariviere’s proposal involved issuing bonds up to $1 billion over 30 years for just the University of Oregon, with the state legislature contributing a fixed $65 million annually toward financing the bonds.

“The university would live off the cash flow from that grant, as well as private contributions for 30 years,” explains Peter Keyes, an associate professor of architecture and member of the UO Senate’s executive committee, who adds that under the plan, the university would also have had its own governing board.
“The Oregon State Board of Education has no idea of what’s happening at this university,” Keyes says, adding that the idea of autonomy was not well-received off-campus. “People [on the outside ] said, ‘You’re privatizing the university,’ and other public universities around the state were concerned about being left behind.

“We didn’t think [Lariviere] was perfect,” Keyes says. “But people here trusted him to have the best interests of the institution at heart. That was enough for us, but not enough for the state board or the governor”—all of whom should have known before hiring Lariviere, Keyes argues, that “he had a reputation as a maverick.”

Culture Shock in Illinois

As if to drive home the point that there’s more than one way to lose a presidential job, former University of Illinois President Michael Hogan (who served less than three years until last July) lost his job after giving the Illinois Board of Trustees exactly what they wanted—to centralize operations, including information technology and human resources as well as admissions, for all three of UI’s campuses in Chicago, Champaign-Urbana, and Carbondale.

“We were having trouble getting quality students. President Hogan needed to make a series of changes in the university to make it more competitive,” recalls University of Illinois Board Chairman Chris Kennedy, who issued a statement upon Hogan’s resignation that the university “owed him a debt of gratitude for moving a number of tough, and sometimes unpopular, initiatives forward.”

In advancing those initiatives, though, Hogan largely bypassed the Illinois faculty, which had a long tradition of shared governance with the university administration. “I imagine from the board’s point of view that if it had hired President Hogan to do administrative restructuring, then he did everything right,” says Joyce Tolliver, the chair of the Champaign-Urbana Senates. 

“What became problematic was going to the faculty after plans were firmly in place. He talked to us. What he should have done was listen more. We tried very hard to give input in a respectful way, but it was apparent that this marriage would need more work than we expected. By the end of the fall of [Hogan’s] first year, we had reached the point of no return.”

Less than 18 months later, unable to repair his relationship with the faculty as the board of trustees had recently required, Hogan submitted his resignation, and board Chairman Kennedy accepted.

Getting it Right from the Get Go

While the “Big Three” of recent early resignations offer cautionary tales, there’s more to taking the helm of a university in this day and age, according to Bataille. “A lot of things have changed—budgets, the expectations of state legislatures, what governors expect. So the job of the president has changed,” she explains, noting that the average tenure of college presidents has fallen to seven years from eight and a half at its peak.

“It’s just one of the worst times to be a university president,” University of Connecticut President Susan Herbst says, referring to the new economic pressures of declining state and federal funding. “Maybe that’s why more are having shorter terms and fewer people want to be university presidents.”

Herbst’s presidency, which began at he end of 2010 and is widely acknowledged within higher education to have progressed successfully, represents an example of how to get things right, says Thornburgh, who consulted with UConn during the presidential search process.

“She has proven herself to be extremely effective in public dynamics,” Thornburgh notes. Those skills have been on display from frequent meetings with the state’s governor and legislature to Herbst’s visible presence concerning the realignment of the NCAA’s athletic conferences to which the university’s elite athletic teams belong.

Part of her job, Herbst acknowledges, is staying attuned to her school’s culture, from faculty input to the high profile of the athletic program. “It’s about fit and I was looking for a fit with the culture of the place,” she says. “Some candidates are amazing, but they don’t fit the culture of a university.”

Herbst also arrived in Connecticut expecting to face a vigorous exchange of opinions throughout her tenure. “A university is really a culture of arguments,” she explains. “And that’s a good thing,” she says. “It’s also about communication, especially at a public university. The president has to seek that communication even though there are so many people involved—the board, the governor, the state legislature.”

The search process also figures prominently in what plays out after a president is selected, Thornburgh says, noting that due diligence and streamlined search committees make a big difference.

“There’s a huge investment of time. If we screw up, we could really derail ourselves,” says Richard Greenwald, the chairman of the Board of Trustees of Drexel University, a private institution in Philadelphia. Greenwald led the search for and hiring process of current Drexel President John Fry in 2011.

The search process, Greenwald explains, began with a grand tour to interview successful and long-term university presidents, The Ohio State University’s Gordon Gee and the University of Miami’s Donna Shalala among them.

It helped, Greenwald adds, that the search committee was limited to 14 members, although that committee took pains to seek input. “You have to be methodical in getting consensus from all of your constituents and getting a very firm profile of the kind of president you want,” he says. Along those lines, Greenwald and his search community held separate forums with faculty, students, and alumni.

Both before and after Fry’s hiring, the board made it a priority to keep lines of communications open. “If we have an issue with John, we talk about it. We know what’s in his head, and he knows what’s in ours.”

“The bottom line is, there should be no surprises,” Bataille stresses about all presidential hirings. “No board wants to read in the papers something you didn’t tell them.”