The Path to a Long Tenure as President Is Treacherous

To the Editor:

I suppose it’s no big surprise that college presidents closely follow the fates of other college presidents as we go through the quite public trials and tribulations that inevitably seem to come with the job. And this past thirty days has brought a deluge of widely publicized unfortunate events.

Here’s are just a few: New York University’s long-serving and much admired president, John Sexton, was given a no-confidence vote by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Meanwhile, faculty members at NYU’s medical, nursing, dentistry, and law schools overwhelmingly voted thumbs-up in a show of support. If this was a baseball game, the tie would go to the runner.

At Arcadia University, we had the mysterious firing of the president, Carl Oxholm III, after a mere 20 months in office. To date, no one has disclosed what that was all about.

The president at St. John’s University in Queens (he’s actually a reverend) was caught up in a potboiler of a scandal that included the criminal trial of one of his most trusted fundraisers (now branded with the nickname “Dean of Corruption” and “The Queen of Mean”), followed by her tragic suicide. No one has yet been taken down by the allegations there, but most likely, that will be only a matter of time.

And there’s Rutgers University, of course, which seems to be pushing all other scandals off the front page. Just this past week, the basketball coach, his assistant, the athletic director, and the chief legal counsel have all fallen. There’s no one left other than the top guy. Will the president, Robert Barchi, be next?

The arts-and-sciences faculty at Rollins College in Florida voted no confidence in its president for an alleged lack of communication skills and leadership ability.

In Atlanta, Emory University’s president, Jim Wagner, faces a no-confidence vote over the closure of several majors and an unfortunate article he wrote in the alumni magazine.

The faculty senate at Cleveland State University also recently voted no confidence in the entire administration. Apparently, they didn’t want to waste time taking on just one leader.

Then there is the fiasco pitting the University of Virginia against its board president, which wins the prize for longest-running, weirdest imbroglio. In a truly creative switcheroo, the faculty pretty much declared no confidence in the entire board. You gotta love that.

The last statistics I read on higher education counted about 75 votes of no confidence over the last 25 years. Clearly, that pace is picking up about as fast as social media can tweet about it.

While it is important to remember that these votes of no confidence are not binding and require no action, they are meaningful (particularly to the person held up as the one the faculty has no confidence in.) Yet it’s also important to realize that the relationship between an administration and a faculty is rarely easy.

A few years ago, I attended a meeting  of college presidents and provosts from 100 liberal-arts colleges across the country. One of the speakers was a former president who described the nature of her relationship with the faculty over what had been a long and successful tenure. She had originally come to the presidency from the faculty and had held high hopes about the potential for a collegial and harmonious relationship with her former colleagues. Twenty years later, very few of those hopes had come to fruition and she shared a number of stories about her deep disappointment over that. Towards the end of her talk, she asked the presidents in the room to raise their hands if the disappointment she was describing resonated. Nearly every hand in the room went up. I know that I  didn’t walk away any less committed to having the most productive relationship I could with our faculty, but I did appreciate, at a much deeper level, just how difficult this sometimes can be.

There are a multiplicity of reasons why the administrative-faculty relationship is fraught with hurdles, but things appear to be getting harder, not easier, and a chasm of misunderstanding can often open up between people with different responsibilities and stresses. A president is tasked with trying to energize all of our different—at times competing—constituencies without alienating one or more of them over the years. Most colleges and universities, public or private, are facing tremendous financial pressures. Accountability issues around the role of faculty governance, tenure, and online opensourcing in today’s fast-paced and competitive environment are also profound and complex; faculty across the country justifiably fear a loss of control in ways they never have before. And hovering over all is a plethora of new media available to faculty and students that can take a difficult campus situation and push it out to the world in a matter of minutes.

The path to a long and successful tenure as president is treacherous at best, yet institutions where presidents come and go quickly don’t fare very well. In one of my first conversations with the search committee responsible for selecting Oglethorpe’s 16th president, I shared my belief that if I didn’t stay 10 years, we both ought to consider my presidency a failure—whether the board asked me to go or at some point I chose to abandon ship. Ten years ought to be our benchmark, I stated. Well, in two months I will begin year nine as that 16th president. That noise you hear is me knocking on wood.

I am proud that I have been steadfast to my commitment. I am thankful to the board for its unwavering support over these past eight years. And I am very grateful to our faculty for their support, even when our views didn’t always coincide, and for doing what they do in an exceptional way, through all our ups and downs. This university has been blessed with extraordinary teachers and mentors, and I believe Oglethorpe is a better place for our collective commitment.

Lawrence M. Schall
President
Oglethorpe University
Atlanta

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