The Dear Departed: Reflections on Presidential Transitions

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

March 03, 2014

One might think that happy presidential transitions are all alike, and that every unhappy presidential transition is unhappy in its own way. But both follow common patterns, and unhappy transitions can occur even when a long-serving and well-appreciated president is being succeeded by someone about whom the community has every right to be enthusiastic.

So—leaving aside those cases in which a departing president is, in effect, being ridden out on a rail, or the appointed successor is viewed by a significant segment of the community with feelings ranging from mild distrust to outright horror—let us ask: What makes for a happy transition and what does not?

The Curse of the Mummy

Sometimes successful presidents will simply not let go upon retirement, and will try to continue running things, repeatedly meddling in the affairs of the institution. Board members may act as enablers or even co-conspirators.

Or the former president may take a different tack in haunting his successor: He (or she) may assume the role of Troublesome Tenured Faculty Member, a likelier strategy in a liberal-arts college than in a large university. Unable to feel a successor’s pain, a past president may go so far as to denounce the administration at faculty meetings.

Fortunately, this is a rare occurrence. Presidents who retire to the faculty are more commonly content to pursue their research and teaching while trying to be as discreet as possible about whatever schadenfreude they may experience when particular crises are no longer their responsibility.

Premature Administration

On the other hand, sometimes an incoming president jumps the gun. I recall one particularly egregious case, when an incoming president established an office on the campus during the last semester of the incumbent president’s term. ("Here’s your coat; what’s your hurry?")

This is how matters should proceed: After the announcement of a presidential appointment, the intendee should enjoy a festive public welcome (the current president perhaps being on important business elsewhere). The future president’s time before taking office should then consist of background study, along with visits to meet significant people on the campus, whether faculty or administrators, and others important to the welfare of the institution. Before taking up the position officially, the prospective president should continue living his or her own life, leaving the institution to the business of making the departing president feel appreciated.

The Long Goodbye

There is something to be said for announcing the appointment of a new president well in advance. It gives a current president time to wrap up a number of matters, including sensitive ones that an incoming president should not have to deal with. It gives the future president ample time for research and general preparation.

But it also poses a challenge: making the departing president feel valued and appreciated as everyone’s eyes are on the future. When this is done right, the last months of a president’s service can be a time of celebration. Rather than being made to feel like the ghost at the wedding, the about-to-be-dear-departed has the opportunity to reflect on the high points of a deeply satisfying time of professional service—and to be the guest of honor at some really good parties.

Departing presidents, for their part, should exercise restraint in their final months in office. When you are running a relay race and are about to pass the baton to the next runner, it’s a good idea to slow down.

Where the Buck Stops

In all matters involving a president—very much including presidential transitions—the board of trustees is ultimately responsible for how things go. When things go well, the board has done an important part of its job. When problems develop, that is the level at which they must be solved. All too often, it is the level where the problem truly lies.

The Afterlife

What about the role of past presidents? What relationship should they have to the community they have served?

Some presidents leave one institution to take on another high-profile position, in which case their considerable energies will be directed elsewhere. Others, being of a certain age, may retire to a quieter, less public existence, which brings an array of adjustments—the most challenging of which is managing one’s own life without benefit of a first-rate administrative assistant.

Retiring presidents who have for many years been wrapped up in an institution during all of their waking (and some of their sleeping) hours, and who continue to care for it deeply, can find it difficult to know exactly how to shape the new relationship. Moreover, being more than ready to move on does not necessarily prevent one from finding it somewhat eerie to see another person in all the old familiar places and photographs—although that stage does pass fairly quickly.

Institutions, for their part, have not done much reflecting upon and shaping the role of former presidents. And, to be sure, there is something in the nature of a college president’s job that complicates the situation. Presidents stand for their institutions. They get both the credit and the blame for what happens on their watch. This is as it should be in terms of blame, but, in fact, much of the credit belongs to those whom the president has had the wit (or luck) to hire and/or retain.

Some presidents have been the objects of a particularly strong cathexis (as our psychoanalytic colleagues would put it), having elicited a great deal of emotional investment from others on campus. I think of such presidents as "incarnational," since I believe that the emotional bond comes from their ability to embody the essential values and identity of an institution.

Lest we give such presidents too much credit for this, we should remember what the social theorist Max Weber taught us about charisma: that its real force comes less from the inherent qualities of a charismatic leader than from the power imputed to that leader by his or her followers.

Just so, the attraction and strength of an incarnational president comes from being the object upon which the love of the institution is projected. Ideally, a college moves from one incarnational president to another, preferably as complementary avatars (to borrow language from another cultural/religious tradition), each bringing different gifts, abilities, and perspectives to the position.

A final point: While leaders most certainly make a difference, we suffer in these times from a condition that we might call "leadership fetishism," which goes hand in hand with a culturally out-of-control emphasis on individualism. While no president should intrude upon the life and work of her successor—after all, she has already had her turn—the assumption that she should disappear entirely might be counterproductive.

Presidents come and presidents go; the colleges and universities they serve are what endure. This is something boards may wish to ponder as they plan for leadership transitions: how best to balance the strong start that a new leader needs and should enjoy with the fact that college presidents are links in a great chain of institutional being.

Judith Shapiro is president of the Teagle Foundation and a past president of Barnard College.