• Issue #44

Welcome New University Presidents

A weathered welcome sign attached to stone and brick building.

You likely already know that colleges and universities are turning over their presidents at a higher-than-usual rate at the moment. There are lots of reasons for this:

  • The economic, social, and political pressures on the position have grown.
  • The pandemic delayed some retirements (some presidents slated to retire didn’t want to leave their institutions in the lurch during a time of turbulence).
  • The pandemic burnt other presidents out faster than they had planned.

In light of changes in the field of higher education, it’s worth taking stock of who these newcomers are and what they bring to the table.

Bringing all of my technical and methodological know-how to bear, I Googled around a bit and surfaced recent university presidential transitions this summer. I stopped when the results in each query became less and less relevant. Overall, I turned up 21 announcements. I am sure there are many more.

Of the ones I looked at:

  • 8 of the 21 new presidents in this list are women, which isn’t horrible.
  • Most of the private institutions are well under 5,000 students. Only two have enrollments larger than 10,000.
  • Of the public institutions, it’s the reverse: only two are below 10,000 students.

Now, this is hardly a scientific study. It’s just to gather intuitions, right? Here are some of the insights that I think are reasonable to draw from a quick dip in the shallow end of the data pool.

Shallow End of the pool.

Observation 1: Almost all of them are coming from provost positions

Do you all remember a few years ago when people were wringing their hands over boards of trustees hiring presidents from Fortune 500s? Maybe this was just a point of concern in the Midwest. In any case, it surprised me to see how traditional the university presidential pipeline remains.

Observation 2: Thematically, search committees are interested in these six things.

Looking at all of these university presidential announcements, it seems that universities were most interested in higher education professionals prepared to:

  • lead transformative change,
  • increase enrollment and retention (sometimes by creating new programs),
  • guide growth in research and innovation,
  • ensure operational excellence,
  • demonstrate values-driven stewardship, and
  • embody an inclusive, student-focused demeanor.

In these announcements, there was little discussion of previous fundraising success, previous experience with mergers, consolidations, acquisitions, or closures, or leading through times of crisis. Now, reasonably, even if a board of trustees were forecasting a merger or closure, they wouldn’t necessarily publicize it until they were absolutely ready to start winding things down. Still, if there were messages to be found between the lines in these announcements, none stood out to me.

Observation 3: With a few exceptions, this is their first presidency.

A college presidency is not a game of musical chairs. It is typically an end cap to a full and intense academic career. It is also a deeply demanding position. So, it is easy to see why folks don’t often run from one presidency to another. Other reports show that the average tenure of university presidents is getting shorter and shorter. This suggests that our presidents learn by observing the presidents before them, and they give what they can for five or six years before retiring.

A bunch of dogs with ties on all in a row.

What does all this mean for higher education digital strategists?

For the last several U.S. presidential elections, the electorate seemed utterly smitten with outsiders. The implication is that the U.S. is so broken and in such serious ways that we need fresh eyes on old problems in order to solve them. That thinking hasn’t permeated our industry. Our institutions are looking for and hiring people with deep knowledge in higher education and traditional experience portfolios to lead during this time of uncertainty.

In terms of digital strategy, we’ll probably face similar organizational challenges along with similar organizational easy wins. It also likely means that our industry’s hard decisions and changes will be taken seriously and metabolized carefully. If this group of new presidents is any indicator, this is not our era to move fast and break things.

Education is a tough business, not because people don’t want or need to be educated, but because it’s still so mysterious and qualitative. You can prove someone learned something for a set period of time in a distinct domain. But, it’s wickedly hard to prove they’ve mastered that knowledge in a permanent way or that they can deftly apply those concepts in different or ambiguous contexts.

Learning is a little like quantum mechanics. You can either know the velocity of a particle or the location of a particle. But you can’t know both simultaneously with any accuracy. That’s because quantum physics doesn’t work like classical physics. And similarly, learning doesn’t work like a traditional business! The speed at which we take in new knowledge, our ability to wield that knowledge with mastery and creativity, and the permanence of our new knowledge - those are things that we only have the vaguest guesses about - from brain to brain. And running the operations behind making sure that a transfer of sophisticated knowledge happens with any kind of consistency - that takes deep experience and finesse.

For what it’s worth, I am glad to see that our pathway to the university presidency feels pretty stable at the moment. It may mean similar internal advocacy work for us and similar budget constraints, but it also means that we’ll proceed with caution and an eye toward quality as we continue to search for necessary solutions and innovations. For me, that’s a worthy trade.

- Kristin Van Dorn