The Presidential Long View

By D. Michael Sherman    //    Volume 26,  Number 3   //    Summer 2018

In today’s higher education climate, it’s increasingly rare for college boards to embrace a long-term president to lead an institution. In 2006, the American Council on Education reported that the tenure for a college president was 8.5 years. Five years later, the average tenure shortened by 18 months to 7 years. The 2017 survey shows that presidential tenure has decreased further to 6.5 years.

In many cases, the reason for this trend is that the college presidency has changed. In a 2013 essay published in Inside Higher Ed, K. Johnson Bowles quipped, “A boxer, a minister, a police officer, a psychologist, and a Nobel laureate walk into a university auditorium. The head of the faculty senate says, ‘What is this, some kind of joke? Where is our new president?’ The head of the search committee replies, ‘No joke. We couldn’t find one person who could fit the leadership profile, so we hired them all and we stayed in budget.’”

Last year, AGB published The 21st-Century Presidency: A Call to Enterprise Leadership. The report argued that for presidents to be effective, boards need to be supportive of “enterprise leadership”—shifting their mindset from those who “merely oversee the president” to a partnership built from mutual understanding of campus challenges and a shared responsibility to address these challenges together.

There’s something to be said for a presidential tenure that doesn’t change more than four times in 25 years. While boards need to set realistic expectations of the chief officer, they also need to consider both the internal and external impact of a president who serves for only a few years. To thrive, boards and their presidents need to prioritize their commitment to institutional stewardship, taking a long view of the presidency and the future of the institution.

At Alma College, we have a tradition of lengthy presidential tenures. We hire experienced higher education executives and provide them with the resources to do their jobs. As a result, Alma has had just three presidents in the past 30 years. Its current president, Jeff Abernathy, has served since 2010.

We believe the most successful presidents are those who are afforded time to get to know their institutions. Colleges and universities have many constituents, and it takes time to build a rapport with key players both on and off campus. Presidents at all levels are managing tight budgets, growth in student unrest, greater competition for students, a shifting political climate, and vast technological change in higher education. For leaders to be most effective, they need time to build strong relationships and develop in these areas.

The role of board members is to serve as institutional fiduciaries—the gatekeepers of the purse and best practices in governance. Their job is to help a president develop a vision for the institution, either winding down a previous strategic plan or creating a new one. Presidents with tenures of 6 years will not be effective in seeing long-term goals to fruition. Instead, short-term presidents tend to focus on short-term solutions that may not be as effective for the institution. Motion isn’t progress, and boards that allow a president to develop a vision and create long-term goals will reap the benefits of transformative leadership.

Taking a presidential long view doesn’t mean boards aren’t engaged, but it does require members to develop a different kind of leadership and trust in the president. As AGB suggests in Consequential Boards, the association’s 2014 report of the National Commission on College and University Board Governance, boards should concern themselves with strategic long-term issues. In other words, hire good people, stand back so they can do their jobs, and hold them accountable for longterm results.