Last March, I found myself terminated "without cause" as president of a small private university. For all of the thinking that went into my appointment letter, it did not sufficiently anticipate such an abrupt ending.
The reasons why it happened are obviously unique to me, but there are lessons in my experience that apply to virtually anyone who aspires to a college presidency, especially now when there are so many currents threatening academe and when perceptions of what's needed in a leader can change so quickly.
For a decade, I had been a senior administrator at a university that ranks in the top 100 or 200 of many such surveys when I was first given the opportunity to become a university president elsewhere. It looked like the ideal situation for me, so after all of the due diligence was completed, I accepted and was happily on my way.
Twenty months later, I was on my way out, effective immediately. The completely unthinkable—and entirely unexpected—had happened.
There was no reason to run to a lawyer: The letter agreement by which I was hired allowed the trustees to end my presidency at any time, without prior warning or explanation, and to continue to pay my salary and benefits for the next year.
I was devastated, of course. Not once in my 32-year career had I ever failed to exceed expectations. But what made it so painful for me was the way my employer chose to carry out its right to fire me "without cause."
Once I learned the news, I drafted an e-mail that I planned to send to certain friends and colleagues explaining that I had been removed. I asked the chair of the university's board to review it before I sent it out. I wrote it as a win-win statement, listing the institution's major achievements under my presidency and promising my future support. In reply, the chair wrote: "the message is fine and fairly represents your many accomplishments" at this university.
By contrast, this is what the university posted on its Web site shortly thereafter, which remained there for more than five months:
"The Board of Trustees announced that effective March 8, 2013, Carl (Tobey) Oxholm III would no longer serve as President. ... While the circumstances leading up to this decision may leave questions, it would be inappropriate for the University to disclose confidential information about any student or employee, including the President."
That was the whole of it, except for introducing the new administrative leader. The same message was sent by e-mail to all university employees and by letter to all alumni.
The brevity is understandable: In an environment where litigation thrives and risk management is essential, the less said is often the better. But instead of reporting specifically that my termination was not "for cause," the language virtually invited the reader's imagination to take flight. What could possibly cause the board to release a president without notice, in the middle of the semester, right before student commencements, alumni reunions, and the end of the fund-raising (and fiscal) year? What "confidential information" about the president was being withheld? And what did it suggest not only about me, but about the institution?
Four months after the fact, the new board chair gave this explanation to a reporter for the local press as part of a story on the shortening tenure of university presidents: "Tobey's a very bright guy. He's got a lot of energy and talent. It just wasn't a good fit."
In just those few words, he had largely cleared away the black clouds in which I, and my future, had been enshrouded. I was enormously thankful, and I told him so.
The point is that he didn't have to speak with the reporter or make any statement at all. He could have remained securely under the legal cloak provided by the words "personnel matter."
Under our written agreement, the university did not have to consult with me in framing its official announcement. And it obviously felt that it owed me no obligation, legal or moral, even to report the nonconfidential fact that the termination had been "without cause." I didn't think about any of this when I signed the appointment letter, confident of a presidency that would last well into the future.
My appointment letter had holes that I didn't see until it was too late. Although virtually all employment contracts permit an employer to terminate an employee without cause, I did not anticipate the potential harm to my career from the icy silence of a "no comment." Nor did I realize how an ambiguous announcement by the university would encourage unchecked speculation about what I mght have done to deserve my firing.
My advice for would-be presidents: Your appointment letter should confirm your right to participate in the drafting of all public statements made about your termination, even requiring your final approval before their release. That will not prevent the "no comment" response, so at a minimum, the contract should require that any public statement specify that the termination was "without cause," if that was the case.
You should also decide during the negotiations on your hiring whether the phrase "not a good fit" will mark an acceptable end to your presidency. If not, negotiate the words by which each side can discuss the event accurately and speak fairly (or even well) of each other. Those words can always be fine-tuned by agreement at the end.
Either way, both parties will benefit from having a rational explanation, in writing, for what will be a very confusing, upsetting, and emotional event. Now is the time to think ahead to the unthinkable. Otherwise, you may find yourself questioning, after the fact, whether the contractual benefit of severance pay is really worth the cost of agreeing to the institution's right to terminate you without cause.