As Presidents Retire, Colleges Look Farther Afield for Their Replacements

Smith College

Kathleen McCartney
January 07, 2013

Everyone had been expecting a flood of college presidents to retire soon. After all, the average age of presidents in 2011 was 61.

And then the departures accelerated, in a way that took even those who were braced for it by surprise. The American Association of State Colleges and Universities counted 109 presidential transitions among its 420 member institutions from April 2011 to August 2012. Normally it sees only about 40 new presidents among its members in a year. Those who were retiring had served an average of nearly 14 years leading their colleges in the association.

The Chronicle's Gazette listings noted the retirements of 92 presidents or chancellors in all higher-education sectors in 2012, along with the appointments of 250. Forty-eight resigned without immediate plans to move to another presidency.

Age is the main reason for the high number of departures. But Muriel A. Howard, president of the state-colleges association, says it's more than that: "The positions are more and more challenging, and they're hard, they're tough. You're having to make very tough fiscal and personnel decisions."

Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, says that retirements account for most of the leadership changes at private colleges as well, but that some of the turnover "is related to the difficulty of their job, and boards that are sometimes hyperactive in their expectations of a president and insist on very sudden changes."

In a few cases, after protests from students, faculty, and alumni, expected departures were undone. Teresa A. Sullivan, president of the University of Virginia, who was under pressure from the institution's governing board, announced last June that she would step down. The board reinstated her a few weeks later.

In December, Morgan State University's Board of Regents narrowly voted not to renew the contract of the university's president, David Wilson, when it expired in June, but later that month it decided to extend his contract for an additional year.

Nontraditional Paths

The biggest surprise Ms. Howard says she found in the association's data was the number of deans moving up to the presidency. At state institutions, that happened eight times during the 17-month period studied, making it the third-most-common step to the top post at a public institution, after chief academic officer (35 instances) and president of another institution (22). Of the 250 new presidents listed by The Chronicle last year, 30 had been deans just before assuming the top post.

Kathleen McCartney, who is 57 and has led the Harvard School of Graduate Education for seven and a half years, is one of the deans taking that step. She will become president of Smith College in July.

At Harvard, "deans have quite a bit of autonomy," she says. "We collect our tuition here, not centrally." The school has its own library and its own development, academic-affairs, and learning-technology teams. "It's similar to running a small college," she says.

Lucy A. Leske, a partner and co-director of the education practice at Witt/Kieffer, an executive-search firm, says deans at such decentralized institutions, whose jobs are like those of executives, can be well prepared for a presidency.

Other deans who moved into top college posts last year include Christina Hull Paxson, who went from leading Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs to being president of Brown University, and Pradeep K. Khosla, dean of engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, who became chancellor of the University of California at San Diego in August.

His selection is representative of what Ms. Leske has observed as another trend: an increased emphasis on choosing presidents with a background in science or technology, as economic development becomes more focused on those fields.

Another factor that may make hiring committees look to deans as candidates is the possibility that they are interested in taking at least one more position before they retire. Roughly 92 percent of presidents are between their mid-50s and mid-70s, says Jan Greenwood, chief executive of the search firm Greenwood/Asher & Associates. The same is true of provosts. Deans, she says, are "tracking about five years younger."

Several colleges have chosen even less-traditional presidents, pulling them from government, business, nonprofit organizations, or the upper ranks of the military. Notable figures leaving elected office for academe are Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., Indiana's departing two-term governor and a Republican, who assumes the presidency of Purdue University this month, and John R. Kroger, a Democrat who stepped down as Oregon's attorney general last year to become president of Reed College.

Among those drawn from the corporate world are Timothy M. Wolfe, who became president of the University of Missouri system, and Felice Nudelman, new chancellor of the Antioch University system. Mr. Wolfe was on the senior management team at Novell, the software maker. Ms. Nudelman was executive director of education at the New York Times Company.

And a rare few leaped to the presidency directly from the faculty, among them Michael Hemesath, an economics professor at Carleton College, who became the first lay president of another Minnesota institution, Saint John's University.

Whirlwind of Change

No public system has gone through a greater rush to fill top positions in the past few years than California State University, which has seen a rash of retirements. In 2011 the 23-campus system appointed three new presidents. In 2012 it named six new presidents, three interim presidents, and a new system chancellor. Two other presidents, on the Los Angeles and Fresno campuses, have said they plan to retire this year.

Attracting leaders to a system struggling to cope with severe cutbacks in state funds and limited by law in how much it can pay its presidents may seem like a formidable task. But Charles B. Reed, the chancellor who retired last year, foresaw what was coming, says Ms. Howard, and "did an amazing job of mentoring people across the system and encouraging his presidents to mentor." Several of the new campus leaders were sitting presidents at other system campuses or had previously worked for the system.

The six California State campus presidents who are new this year range in age from 52 to 62, and represent far more diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds than do presidents in the country as a whole.

In California and elsewhere, the new campus leaders must meet changed expectations. What used to excite people about being president is that they were going to be able to build something and shape the future, Ms. Howard says. Now "a lot of it is presiding over downsizing and shrinking your vision." Governors, legislators, and governing boards have little tolerance for any kind of misstep, she adds.

The new presidents involved in her organization have moved past worrying about the loss of state funds and are concentrating on other issues, like making sure that there is enough financial aid for students and that they complete college. Those, she says, are the challenges that presidents are embracing, in a job that many still find rewarding.