Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, Gerald B. Kauvar and E. Grady Bogue
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013,163 pp., $34.95
aybe it is the fate of mature democracies to experience twin waves of feckless leadership and bloated bureaucracy. Despite news of increasing shareholder revolts and political street protests in many countries, leaders of unions, firms, and government agencies have become more timid and self-serving. Such tendencies are exemplified by one type of organization, the university, which many associate only with sports and credentialing. For better or worse, few people actually know much about what goes on inside of them.
Unlike most other organizations, universities have enormous brand name goodwill on which to trade for public trust. Some have abused that trust, trading on past glory days while extracting outrageous tuition fees and donations. Much of this financial support feeds administrative bloat and covers up serious problems of presidential leadership. As competition for students, faculty and funds increases, how can universities retain bold, entrepreneurial leaders? They can’t simply throw money at the problem in the form of sky-high salaries. Even absent the public backlash against runaway administrative spending, many university systems are far too dysfunctional for one highly paid superstar president to save them. Given the environment, even the most talented individual can quickly go down in flames.
A terse, readable and short little book by former George Washington University president Stephen Joel Trachtenberg et al provides a menu of best practices designed to forestall future leadership derailments. “Derailment” is a euphemism here for being asked to resign, invited to leave, or simply for being sacked. The authors examine the different reasons presidents flame out, and the lessons they come up with are illuminating for leaders beyond higher ed. Ministers, CEOs, city managers, and prime ministers have all provided examples of spectacular flameouts, so the book is well poised for a wider audience. Those involved in leadership recruitment, hiring and performance evaluations of firms and universities should especially read this book. Like these leaders, university presidents must perform multiple roles and serve multiple masters in complex cultures that are both maddeningly glacial and dangerously volatile. The authors offer practical recommendations for the major university actors: search committees, executive search firms, boards of trustees, legislators and governors.
One of the book’s case studies is Brian Johnson, president of Montgomery College in Maryland from 2007–09 and by all accounts an incompetent and corrupt leader. The faculty voted no confidence in him for frequent absences from campus meetings and for use of the college credit card for personal purchases. How do such people get through the elaborate search processes and last two years, even receiving handsome separation agreements on departure? By contrast, William Frawley, president of Mary Washington University in Virginia from 2006–07, served as a solid leader despite undiagnosed depression, heart problems, compulsive work habits and an autistic son. This combination of issues combined with drinking to produce a high-profile arrest for drunk driving during one of his 75-mile commutes from Washington to Fredericksburg. Instead of giving him medical leave and arranging a quiet departure, the Virginia state attorney applied the “Old Testament” political culture and made sure he (the “transgressor”) was fired with loss of tenure, no salary and no severance package. Where was the board and staff support he had cultivated during his tenure there? Why was the breakdown of a well-accomplished leader with internal university support treated as a public spectacle while the severance packages of presidents like Brian Johnson are treated as confidential?
To generate lessons from cases like these, the authors focus on four institutions at each level: private liberal arts, public master’s level, public research universities, and community colleges. For data and information, they relied on confidential participant interviews. Some of the interviews were with principals (derailed presidents and others that avoided derailment) and others were with observers who had firsthand knowledge. While the names and places of the 16 universities were changed, the book includes an appendix of thirty actual derailment cases. It also refers to the academic scandal blog of Daniel deVise, which provides even juicier accounts of other flameouts.
Consider the scope of the problem: in only one two-year period, 2009 and 2010, fifty presidents resigned, retired prematurely, or were fired. While this amounted to only 1 percent of the 4,496 colleges, universities and community or junior colleges, many more barely survived faculty votes of no confidence and derailment. In short, the problem of finding effective leaders and retaining them is much larger than the raw number of derailments might suggest. (Still, one could ask, why focus on failures if the vast majority of presidents succeed? Grady Bogue recounts how as chancellor of Louisiana State University, he was able to make budget cuts by leveraging individual board member relationships and finally appealing to the governor himself. Perhaps there could have been more stories like this.)
The authors identify six themes that both presage and explain presidential derailments at the four types of colleges. First, presidents display ethical lapses (embezzlement, extravagant purchases like dog runs, giant desks, and lavish home remodeling jobs, together with distracting sexual misadventures and harassments). Second, some have interpersonal skill problems: once on the job, presidents display combative, adversarial, cliquish behavior and are prone to temper tantrums. These are the Captain Queeg types who demand blind loyalty even from loyal supporters with such paranoid requirements as that vice presidents not share information with subordinates. Third, they have problems dealing with key constituency or stakeholder opposition. In other words, they fail to develop “relational capital”, resulting in faculty no confidence votes, and they arouse the enmity of powerful board members and civic leaders. Fourth, presidents can be a poor fit in the school’s culture. They struggle to adapt to the shared governance model and to the endless meetings, processes and planning exercises. Fifth, presidents often fail to meet operational objectives, such as maintaining financial condition, increasing enrollment, increasing fundraising and meeting budget targets. Sixth, presidents face dysfunctional boards, which may conduct flawed search processes, engage in political machinations behind their backs, and become riddled with internal conflicts of interest.
As a case study of the latter problem, the authors describe the board-coerced resignation and subsequent reinstatement of University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan. The board chair steamrolled enough members to replace the president. This caused the resignation of distinguished administrators and faculty, and angered faculty and staff, students, parents, alumni, legislators and, most importantly, generous donors. Some presidents are tin-eared and consistently misread or ignore pre-existing power structures in their communities. But these flaws often pale in significance to board bullying. Boards have often been complicit in derailments; they may manipulate the hiring process and later set up the president for failure. Often boards push presidents to make bold but vague changes, encouraging such actions as costly and ineffective reorganizations for which presidents are blamed later.
One might further narrow down their classifications to two types of flameouts with separate causes. First, qualified and effective leaders often run up against structural problems in the form of institutional and cultural peculiarities, which they probably missed during the interview process (as in Frawley’s case). Few people could manage themselves out of these constraints. Former University of California President Clark Kerr could not deal with the clamor of student rebellions in the 1960s or the distaste of Governor Ronald Reagan for the Berkeley scene. Kerr noted that he left office the same way he entered: “fired with enthusiasm.” Second, unqualified leaders are able to read and game the search process and then try their hands at misusing internal university systems (as in the case of Brian Johnson noted above). With the confidence of winning smiles and honey-coated vocal chords, they nevertheless surround themselves with yes-men cabinets and are often unable to move between different roles and stakeholders effectively. Eventually, at least one constituency sees through the artifice. Flawed search processes, weak internal controls, financial management, and performance evaluation systems allow these people to slip through, lead poorly, mismanage the university and flame out.
Readers of Presidencies Derailed can swiftly conclude that the presidential search process needs improvement. It is hard to find presidents with the right combination of skills where the supply of such people is low. That explains long, drawn-out searches and high salaries. Nevertheless, the authors describe many unqualified presidents who can be traced back to weak or politicized searches, beset by board arrogance and internal schisms. Despite the importance of the search process, however, the authors have little to offer beyond the advice to hire search firms that prioritize candidate qualities and perform due diligence on backgrounds, to avoid groupthink and be collegial, and other trivialities.
The problem is that search processes absorb vast amounts of time from multiple stakeholders inside and outside the university community with often questionable results. Often the hiring firms are working multiple searches at the same and ask candidates rote questions from a list—an open invitation to game the system. In my case, a head-hunter asked why I was interested in coming to the University of Dayton. Since I had not applied for a job there, I told her I had no interest in coming there at all.
Might not the process be simplified and focused a bit more by a night of bar-hopping with the candidate, as is often done with faculty? Under such conditions, dossiers come to life and hidden personality traits appear that would put even the dimmest search committee member on guard. An even bigger red flag is when the candidate won’t drink at all for non-medical reasons. In another case, a community college in an industrial community where most were not educated past high school selected the candidate produced by its search process. He was quickly derailed even after one board member noted during interviews: “Look at those cuff links—who does he think he is?” The evidence from this book is that personality quirks, management style problems, inability to get on with different types of stakeholders, and even obvious cues such as gaudy, expensive cufflinks in a working class community are all missed by the process. Search processes have to be democratic and consensual to avoid charges of favoritism. But even democracies need limits to be effective.
Second, college presidents lack resources to be properly accountable for both strategic and operational issues. Though the authors do not make this point, it is clear from the information in this book that boundaries should be established between policy-making and operational roles, and that there should be greater executive authority. Universities are decentralized places, and the norm is to get consensus on every decision large or small. But this often doesn’t work. The president is repeatedly called the “chief executive officer”, but there is no independent CEO or chief operating officer (COO) at universities performing such basic functions as reviewing internal financial controls; reviewing core transactions and systems for personnel, financial management and procurement; and conducting efficiency and financial audits when necessary. There are vice presidents who perform these functions separately, and provosts often claim to be CEOs. But VPs do not normally move without orders from higher up, and provosts consider themselves chief academic officers who are supposed to generate research funds and keep up academic standards.
An independent CEO office responsible for operational systems could be useful because presidents are often blindsided by failures to control spending, prevent administrative bloat or manage procurements. Many would dismiss this idea as just another administrative position. To avoid that problem, the office would have to be designed for independence with authority to report directly to the board and the public if it deemed this necessary. It would be similar to internal audit units at state and local governments that try to prevent its analyses and recommendations from being smothered by existing power structures. Hiving off the operational role and assigning it to a CEO would allow them to push back more effectively on strategic matters deemed important by boards and the university community, such as improved rankings, more enrollment, realistic campus planning, and better fundraising. Issues should always be handled at the lowest feasible level. The effectiveness of core systems to hire staff, bid contracts, process students, control spending, and approve minor transactions should be examined regularly by independent CEOs, not by the leader of a university.
Clearer boundaries between a strategic presidency and independent CEO could also save funds through in-house performance reviews that would spare the school money currently being spent on consultancies. For instance, the Iowa Board of Regents recently hired Deloitte Consulting for $2.5 million to identify ways its three main universities could cut spending, reduce staffing levels, cut inefficient programs, share resources across campus and boost resources. A properly functioning CEO office would review transaction performance and perform value for money reviews on a regular basis—and could perform the Iowa requirements at lower cost and probably higher quality. An independent CEO could use in-house resources to examine such issues as why the university (and particular schools) spends so much on administration in relation to instruction; why tuitions are so high and still increasing; why so much needs to be spent on consultants, and why so much needs to be spent on searching for, recruiting and inaugurating presidents that have derailed in the past.
Regardless of structural changes such as CEOs or improvements to search processes, presidents will have to better manage tensions between competing stakeholders if they are to survive and be effective. As the authors note, this means learning how to dance bolero with the many actors in this superficially collegial but deadly serious university environment, sometimes close together and at other times at a distance to lend enchantment to the bigger picture of what the university actually needs to thrive and advance.