Nontraditional Presidents

A New Wave of Enterprise Leadership

By Terrence MacTaggart    //    Volume 26,  Number 3   //    Summer 2018

The college needed a fresh start with a new leader, so the board accepted the resignation of its longtime president and sought “nontraditional” candidates to reverse the slow decline in enrollment, revenues, and students able to pay full tuition. After a national search, board members selected an alumnus who brought senior military and business achievement to the role. They regarded his minimal academic experience—a BA in history and an MBA from an elite university—as a plus since they believed his predecessor was too beholden to the faculty to lead changes that academics would find uncomfortable. In the 12 months after taking office, the new president and his team launched a branding and advertising campaign, spruced up the campus, and contracted with an online educational partner. However, overall enrollment remained unchanged. Now, in a private meeting with the board chair, a delegation of senior faculty has criticized the new president for “not really understanding this college” and not consulting with the faculty. Some faculty senators have broached the idea of a no-confidence vote. The chair, who had championed the new president when he was a candidate, is mystified—and concerned.

This scenario is increasingly common as boards seek executives outside of higher education to lead their academic enterprises. These presidents and their boards face two serious challenges. The first comes from outside the institution, the second from within. Presidents and boards need to lead change at institutions roiled by external challenges such as intense competition, a declining pool of applicants, and a value proposition that is under increasing scrutiny. However, they quickly face a second set of barriers generated by the culture of the academy itself.

The values that underpin the mission of the academy and distinguish it from other great social organizations also make it very difficult to lead in new directions. Salient features such as the commitment to academic freedom buttressed by the tenure system, a tradition of shared governance that resists prompt and difficult decisions, and systemic skepticism toward authority tend to make academics wary of leaders generally, and particularly skeptical of would-be leaders with little academic experience.

Failure to navigate the internal barriers makes overcoming the external challenges harder still. But mastery of them makes the path to positive change smoother. The art of leading an academic enterprise lies in taking advantage of the deliberative features of the academy when it makes sense and being ready to move beyond them when necessary for the long-term health of the institution. Leading often means taking on difficult issues and making uncomfortable choices without the full support of the academic community.

Successful leadership of the academic enterprise demands that presidents and their boards forge an especially close and pragmatic working relationship to lead change at change-resistant institutions. As noted in AGB’s 2017 report The 21st-Century Presidency: A Call to Enterprise Leadership, presidents and trustees alike need to appreciate the competitive nature of the higher education marketplace, concentrate their attention on practical strategies, and engage the academic community in the change process. At the same time, they need to be prepared to make tough decisions when necessary.

With an eye toward presidents and board members new to higher education, as well as veterans perplexed by its culture, this article summarizes key features of academic culture, then suggests how boards and executives can respect academic values and still responsibly assert leadership.


Mutual Misunderstanding

The findings of the 2017 Trustee Index, a joint survey conducted by AGB and Gallup, confirm that neither academics nor board members understand each other very well. In fact, many board members list faculty members as the chief obstacle to constructive change. Trustees and presidents new to the academy find themselves mystified, frustrated, and sometimes undone by their lack of familiarity with the ways of the academy. By the same token, academics— especially teaching and research faculty— have very limited knowledge of the responsibilities and the authority of the board and question the executive mandate of the president.

This gap is not surprising when we note that most new board and presidential orientations do not pay enough attention to the realities of academic culture. The chasm mattered far less in more settled times than it does in today’s contested environment. Changes such as substituting market-oriented programs for legacy ones or introducing online delivery are sure to elicit criticism from traditional academics.

Respect for the Culture and Leading Change

The art of enterprise leadership comes down to both respecting the culture and leading change. The 21st-Century Presidency defines enterprise leadership as “the vigorous exercise of authority.” It goes on to say that leadership in this context means “guiding an institution through a comprehensive adaptive process that positions it to prosper in a competitive, fast-changing environment.” The report emphasizes the importance of engaging the academic community in the change process. It underscores the role of the board and the president as partners in change leadership. Enterprise leadership recognizes that, except in the case of proprietary schools, colleges and universities are not businesses. However, these leaders know that without astute attention to finance, marketing, operations, and the other aspects of the business side, the academic mission will suffer and may well be in peril.

Two Common Missteps

One surprisingly frequent mistake is turning whatever challenges the institution faces over to the faculty to resolve, an alternative they sometimes relish. At first glance, this appears reasonable. Faculty are bright and know the academy; many of their ideas are worthwhile. However, faculty senates and similar bodies find it almost impossible to propose solutions that would harm the livelihoods of their colleagues. And with personnel incurring 70 percent or more of college costs, any institution with fiscal problems must look to staff reductions or reconfigurations as part of the solution.

Especially at liberal-arts colleges and among humanities faculty elsewhere, a popular recommendation, often championed by alumni trustees, is straightforward: simply recruit more students committed to the traditional liberal-arts majors such as English and history. “Magical thinking” is how one college president described this proposition, which ignores today’s market and demographic realities.

Boards of several challenged institutions in the northeast, a region with intense competition for students and declining numbers of high school graduates, allowed their presidents to succumb to magical thinking while enrollment and revenue plunged. Ultimately these schools experienced massive layoffs that effective executives and realistic strategies could have averted.

A second stumbling block is to exclude faculty altogether under the assumption that they will inevitably oppose change. Excluding the academic community from the process of change is a recipe for noconfidence votes, bad press, and chronic resistance. Faculty senates and assemblies may avoid genuinely hard decisions, but they can contribute valid criticism and fresh solutions. Engaging them in serious conversation also helps build trust and a greater degree of buy-in when it comes time to implement new approaches.

Dialogue for Change

A better alternative is joining with the academic community in realistic dialogue about the institution’s position and future, and using the tools of shared governance as far as they will go. Ultimately, the board and the president will likely need to assert authority in making the tough calls, but the earlier conversations can make difficult choices more palatable.

Syracuse University achieved this balance during a major downsizing of faculty and staff needed to restore competitiveness in the early 1990s. Faculty governance bodies discussed a “smaller and better” strategy at length but ultimately were not asked to vote on elimination of programs or personnel reductions. Nonetheless, they tacitly supported the change, which successfully repositioned this studentoriented research university.


For leaders who are new to their roles at colleges and universities, the key features to understand are academic freedom, tenure, shared governance, a skeptical attitude toward authority, and the conviction that the university itself is its own reason for being.

Academic Freedom

The classic definition of academic freedom comes from the 1940 American Association of University Professors’ statement, which states that faculty are “entitled to full freedom in research and the publication of the results.” It goes on to say that teachers enjoy “freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject.” This concept of academic freedom has been endorsed by numerous professional associations, including AGB. Though not enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, academic freedom is much like freedom of the press, which, along with free speech, is guaranteed in the First Amendment. Faculty members are generally intelligent and, as the saying goes, “paid to have opinions.” Since they will express those opinions in the media, it makes sense to take the time to persuade them of the logic and value of fresh change initiatives.

Why Tenure Is Important

Tenure, the right to employment security following a suitable probationary period and evaluation, recognizes sustained excellence in teaching, research, and service—a status that inextricably ties a scholar to the ongoing intellectual and programmatic life of the institution. It also supports academic freedom and speech, and, except in egregious cases, protects those so designated from the interference of administrative overreach. This group of experienced and typically wise professors can exercise a powerful influence over their colleagues, particularly younger faculty. For these reasons, among others, they deserve respect and attention. While there are no guarantees, if senior professors buy into the new agenda, others in the academic community are more likely to follow.

Understanding Shared Governance

Board members and presidents find faculty too slow to make decisions and unaccountable for the consequences of them, a view largely confirmed by the 2017 AGB white paper, Shared Governance: Changing with the Times. Indeed, faculty senates, assemblies, and councils are deliberative bodies not designed to deliver institutional strategies or make hard choices in a timely way. Senators often reluctantly accept the assignment out of loyalty to their department. These groups are effective at managing internal conflicts over educational territory—for example, which courses will satisfy general education requirements.

The point is to collaborate with these deliberative bodies in communicating and analyzing institutional challenges and options, but not expect them to make the tough calls that could jeopardize their colleagues’ livelihoods.

Skepticism and Distrust of Authority

A culture of skepticism pervades the academy, although its intensity varies with the discipline and even geography. Training for the professorate inculcates a skeptical attitude toward received opinion. For example, the final requirement for the doctorate is a lengthy dissertation that often begins with a critique of what others said on the topic. Like the best investigative journalists, faculty share a thirst for truth, an abiding commitment to intellectual independence, and a suspicion of what they are told by so-called authority, be it college administrators or board members. This systemic skepticism can be harnessed to improve new initiatives, change strategies, and test the talents of leaders in making the case for change.

Distrust of those in authority, along with a predilection for public protest so common in the 1960s, is resurging today. Discontent with the status quo is being amplified in more recent movements that address racial and economic injustice, income inequality, sexual harassment and abuse, the power of global corporations and global competition, and other causes. Leaders new to the academy need to be prepared for growing student—and in some cases, faculty—activism.

Going to Extremes

In Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer describes the ideal scholar: “Gladly would he learn, and gladly teach.” This portrait holds true for the large majority of faculty today. Most are devoted to teaching their students and producing research, often leaving the politics of the academy to others. However, many campuses—a reflection of the very society in which they exist—also harbor activist, angry, and sometimes politically radical individuals prone to occupations, demonstrations, and fierce criticism of all those in authority.

Protections of academic freedom, tenure, and the First Amendment limit the options for dealing with behaviors that might be construed as unfriendly, discourteous, or disruptive. The remedies are patience, mutually respectful relationships with the many reasonable advocates, and balanced policies that respect free speech while sanctioning harassment and obstruction of controversial speakers.


Successful enterprise leadership demands that its practitioners first learn what may seem a strange culture to outsiders, and take advantage of the opportunities for communication and collaborative decisions it offers. But they should be ready to move beyond the culture’s immediate preferences to accomplish what is in the best long-term interest of the enterprise. The following recommendations will help leaders establish enterprise leadership in the academy.

1. The board and president must agree on the change agenda and strategies.

Leading change is a most perilous activity, as Machiavelli observed in the 16th century. From the very beginning of their relationship, the board and president must understand the dynamics of change in the academy, the goals and strategies the president will employ, and the importance of “having the president’s back” when opposition arises. Because opponents of change will take aim at its leader, criteria for presidential evaluation should be clear from the start.

In-depth discussions of the change agenda and process will help ensure there is little daylight between the board and the executive. All board members, not just members of a finance or audit committee, should share an accurate understanding of the institution’s true financial condition and its prospects going forward. If there are firebrands on the board, the chair needs to manage them to remain temperate in times of conflict. On those occasions when unpopular decisions are required, the chair and the president need to coordinate their communications with the academic community.

2. Listen to a mentor or coach.

A nontraditional president’s first days on campus will be a journey to a foreign land where the words sound familiar, but their meaning is open to interpretation. Intelligent travelers recognize the value of a trusted guide, ideally a former president with experience at a similar institution. Mentors from within the institution, perhaps a seasoned vice president or distinguished professor, or both, will be invaluable in navigating the personalities and politics of the academy. New presidents hired to serve within a public system of institutions can avoid missteps with the help of a savvy advisor who has balanced campus priorities with statewide goals.

3. Learn how the culture really works.

Three key features to study are the exercise of academic freedom, the rules and actual practices governing the award of tenure, and the boundaries of authority surrounding agencies of shared governance. Study the scope and limits to public expression that the institution implicitly accepts. Discover if tenure is awarded on real merit or has become an entitlement. Take steps to align the numbers of tenured faculty with programs slated for future growth and limit tenure in declining programs.

4. Communicate early and often at board meetings, in campus-wide forums, and through governance bodies. Be candid in presenting and discussing the challenges facing the institution. Listen carefully to the attitudes and voices of faculty, staff, and students for the wisdom they may offer and as a sign of respect.

“Speaking truth to power” is how one experienced president described her role in sharing with her faculty the serious plight of the college. She also had similarly honest conversations with the board. Present the facts in campus-wide forums, communicate using all available channels, and invite faculty to join task groups and even board committees focusing on strategic issues. Use shared governance to make the case for change. Set deadlines for responses or action. Follow the advice of John Kotter, best-selling author and change management expert, in hyping communications by a factor of 10. Assess the tenor of the relationship between faculty, and administration and the board. If trust and mutual respect are lacking, take steps to repair relationships.

5. Assert vigorous enterprise leadership.

The time when academic presidents and their boards could largely preside over the workings of secure organizations in predictable environments is long gone. Asserting leadership now means charting directions and making decisions that are in the best interests of the academic enterprise, but often are not fully supported by the academic community. A proactive approach to engaging with the academic community through the conventions of academic freedom and shared governance may help strengthen working relationships.

At the same time, collegial communication alone will seldom substitute for courageous leadership.

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