By Karlyn Borysenko
Leadership Content Director
Have university presidents become as expendable as football coaches – sent packing after one bad season, scandal, or political misstep? This panel explored the elements that can stop a presidency in its track based on findings from the recent book Presidencies Derailed: Why University Leaders Fail and How to Prevent It. Panelists included:
- Alan Sessoms, former president of the University of the District of Columbia
- Michael S. Garrison, former president of West Virginia University
- Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president emeritus of The George Washington University
- Jean A. Dowdall, partner at Witt/Kieffer
Stephen Joel Trachtenberg kicked off the session, introducing the session as a story of smart and committed people that are undone by a context that may be out of their control, or simply from a stupid mistake, making a point to note that often the members of the Board of Trustees play a role in that demise.
Lay people think university presidents live in a far more benign environment that they actually do – there are about 50 cases each year in the US where presidents leave under less than ideal circumstances. Boards are continuously fickle about life on campus. Faculty feel more entitled than ever, exercising votes of no confidence without understanding the ramifications of their actions. Did the search committee force a square peg in a round hole? Did the president not understand the job? Any number of issues could be at play.
Next, Jean Dowdall took the stage to offer her lessons learned from the executive search point of view.
- Don’t drink the Kool Aid. When you start a search, there is a period of reflection…but that reflection can be inflated by the richness of your institution. That can mislead a search committee into looking for something that isn’t really what they need.
- Be prepared to tell all. You have to be open with your candidates – a candidate that is not properly informed up front may not be successful later. Don’t be afraid to scare off candidates – your potential presidents want to solve serious problems and take on big challenges.
- Be prepared to learn all. Do your reference checks, both for references your candidates list and one they do not but that can provide you information confidentially. And once you do them, you have to pay attention to them. Looking back at reference reports, you can often see red flags that later lead to failure if you don’t use the information in the decision making process. If you choose to higher candidates who present red flags, do it with your eyes open.
- Show an eagerness for partnership with your candidates. The better the search committee and the board can connect during the search process, the better that relationship will be over time. If that relationship is strong, it will help in the first year and beyond.
- The whole campus should also show that eagerness. Greet the new president with open arms, rather than folded arms, and you will set them up for success from day 1. A candidate who senses that eagerness is not there will be less inclined to take on the job.
- Let the outgoing president contribute, but make it at the request of the new president. They can be very helpful, but the new president has to be given the freedom to make that decision.
Next, Michael Garrison took the stage to share his personal experience with gaining, and then losing, a presidency.
- Garrison was a first generation graduate of WVU, which was central to his interest in entering higher education administration.
- He was nominated to the presidency in 2007 with the knowledge that he was an unconventional candidate, but did not immediately accept. In conversations, there was always a mention of avoiding the status quo, being a lobbyist and chief to deal more effectively with government relationships, and tackle the growing and inefficient bureaucracy. As an active lawyer and a former lobbyist, it seemed like it could be a good fit.
- The faculty protested his appointment immediately – there was a vote of no confidence before he even began. So he reached out to meet with the faculty senate executive committee the day after he was named to figure out how to work together. The start wasn’t ideal, but he managed to get some buy in.
- Next, he wanted implement a series of town hall meetings and public forums to air the issues of the campus in a different format, but was forbidden from doing so by the board chairman since the faculty had been against him. He did it anyway, and it was a great thing on campus and was well received. That informed the first 100 days of his presidency.
- He achieved some big successes that hit the bottom line very early – they achieved the largest private donation in university history, increased the state budget appropriations for the first time in a long time that translated into raises, convinced the legislature to pass a research trust fund, doubled the number of businesses that were registered at the career services center, and created the first university sponsored daycare center. At the end of the 100 days, they were rated an A by the local media.
- But, there were two issues that came up that caused him to leave the presidency early. Upon assuming the presidency, he learned that one of the unresolved issues he was inheriting was a situation with the very successful sitting football coach who was promised a new, lucrative contract in a “whatever it takes” deal but the contract had not been drawn up yet. They got it signed and played out the season, but the following year they learned on ESPN that he was leaving. Long story short, they ended up filing a lawsuit (that was approved by the board)…and that caused a firestorm.
- The second issue, which happened concurrently, surrounded a former student (who happened to be the daughter of a high profile politician) who had listed an executive MBA for a high profile job. When the company called the university to verify, the registrar’s office could only verifying that she had enrolled. She went after the university and, because there were issues with record keeping in the program, they could not verify her graduation even though she had a physical diploma. The issue hit the media and grew until it came back to campus and made its way to the faculty senate. Garrison impanelled a faculty review committee against the advice of his provost, which found that they did not agree with the awarding of the degree, which caused it to continue to grow in the media.
- At this point, he knew he had lost members of the board and he thought the board was far too concerned with the media and failed to look at analytical data. He stepped down.
- Garrison noted that universities and boards should be the first to examine what happened when things go wrong, but his experience has been that they don’t. They just want to move on and don’t take the time to consider how to avoid the same problem in the future.
Finally, Alan Sessoms took the stage to discuss his experience as the president of the University of the District of Columbia.
- When he started in 2008, he was told that he should fix it or tell them how to close it. This was his third presidency. He thought he understood what “fix it” meant, but that was not the case and offered the advice that you need to make sure to define what you’re talking about!
- There was a culture class on the campus, which had merged three different universities that had failed to pull themselves together to create a united culture. When he took the presidency, there were still people there from before the merger. The university had had 10 presidents in the 39 years since the merger.
- When he arrived, it was an interesting time. The board did a national search and announced the three candidates. They were overruled on their candidates by the mayor, who didn’t think any of them were qualified, but failed to provide an alternate name. So when Sessoms arrived on campus, he had no chance of a relationship with the mayor since he was one of the three candidates.
Sessoms closed with some lessons learned:
- History matters, no matter how good a president is. He or she can’t fix an institution when the people there don’t want it fixed.
- If you are being recruited, do your own due diligence.
- The president of a public institution can’t succeed if the politicians don’t want you to succeed.
- Boards matter. Bad boards matter more than good boards.
- Nothing is done on its merits, everything is a deal, and no deal is too small. And sometimes, you just can’t make a deal.