The October 2023 meeting of the AGB Council of Board Professionals engaged in a robust and insightful discussion on the topic of “Sustainable Presidential Leadership and Board Leadership Continuity.” The conversation began with the recognition that the average tenure of college and university presidents is declining to an average of five years. AGB staff noted that the organization has been collecting data on presidential tenures and found that several recent one- to three-year presidencies have lowered the national average for presidential tenures to approximately five years.
What Factors Cause Shorter Presidential Tenures?
The discussion revealed that some of the factors contributing to this trend included increased demands on the job, greater scrutiny from the public and the media, a changing demographic profile of presidents, and an aging workforce.
Attendees acknowledged that the role of the college president has become increasingly complex and demanding in recent years. Presidents are expected to be experts in a wide range of areas, including academics, finance, fundraising, and public relations. They must also navigate a complex and ever-changing political landscape. This set of factors, combined with the instant and continuous reach of social media, has made the job even tougher. Social media’s challenging culture and its instant proliferation of unverifiable information have resulted in presidents spending an excessive amount of time responding to inaccurate statements. All of these factors, along with trying to navigate the turbulent higher education environment (including the proliferation of AI), are becoming overwhelming for presidents and their boards, thus driving out many presidents prematurely from their leadership positions.
One of the consequences of this decline in presidential tenure is that presidents do not have enough time to implement their visions for their institutions—including the implementation of long-term strategic plans and goals. These short tenures are also preventing presidents from building strong relationships with key stakeholders, including their board chairs and board members. This has led to instability and uncertainty within many institutions.
Board Leadership Continuity
The board professionals’ council also noted that continuity in board leadership has recently become an issue. AGB staff noted that in discussions with seasoned board chairs at AGB member institutions, these leaders indicated that continuity of board leadership has been disrupted, interfering with the practice of ensuring a steady and effective transition of leadership within the governing board. Without leadership continuity an organization’s stability and success can be hampered. The council noted that the recent trend of a two-year term for the board chair is an excessively short time and further that a turn-taking rotation of board chairs often fails to match the skills and abilities of board chairs to the work to be done. These trends create a strategic disadvantage for some boards and institutions today.
The council acknowledged that COVID-19 also disrupted board-leadership continuity. The pandemic forced many institutions into emergency survival mode, resulting in board members having to step in and help guide executive management at their institutions. This laser focus on addressing the fallout from COVID-19 shifted board priorities, resulting in some standard board practices being placed on the back burner or shut down completely. Now, some boards are asking these questions:
- When and how can they return to a more routine, less hands-on role, for the board chair in the administration of their institutions?
- Whether and how they can adjust leadership structures, including the roles of vice chair(s) and other board officers?
- How they can catch up on the leadership-pipeline development that was put on the back burner throughout the pandemic, rather than being in the foreground of board priorities?
- What practices need to be in place to address the presidential-continuity challenges?
What Can Board Professionals Do to Help?
To the rescue—board professionals. Board professionals (BPs) can help their boards get back on track and stay on track since they can and should play a critical role in presidential success and board-leadership continuity for their colleges and universities. These board professionals should encourage and foster good board governance, including a culture of open communication, collaboration, and respect. BPs also can ensure their boards are well-informed about the issues on the board’s agenda and help ensure that the boards’ decisions are made in the best interests of their institutions.
BPs can and should also play significant roles in assisting in the development of board-succession plans, which include identifying potential candidates for board membership and the development of processes for transitioning new members onto the boards. Such succession plans should include a process for developing and grooming board leaders.
BPs work to ensure that the board is well-informed about the institution’s strategic plan and its goals, which help their boards make informed decisions about board succession and presidential succession, as part of executing the institution’s strategic plan.
Further, board professionals are essential in facilitating communication between their boards and the president and often can be that steady “third” leg in the structure to encourage effective working relationships.
Board professionals step in to fill a critical role in the transition of their new presidents and board chairs by providing information, advice, and guidance, as well as aiding the outgoing president and/or board chair.
AGB and Board Professionals
Over the years board professionals have been able to leverage AGB’s resources and its team of experienced board professionals on the membership rosters to obtain support, guidance, and suggestions for handling challenging situations in presidential and/or board member transitions. AGB’s strength is its members, who bring years of firsthand experience in higher education, the non-profit environment, and the for-profit world. They are a treasure chest of resources that can and should be utilized.
Michael Rambert, JD, is senior vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary of Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta.
Opinions expressed in AGB blogs are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the institutions that employ them or of AGB.