Leadership & Governance

The Graying Presidency

Major universities face imminent problems of succession planning

September 25, 2011

A Social Security check could accompany the generous compensation package of a number of college presidents these days.

The average age of a college leader is 60, so it's no surprise that a wave of retirements in higher education's top jobs is imminent, and significant turnover is fast approaching at the nation's elite research institutions.

Ruth J. Simmons's announcement this month that she would step down as Brown University's president next year is a harbinger for the top-tier institutions that belong to the Association of American Universities, where seven presidential searches are either under way or soon to begin.

Whether the new blood will bring about a substantial reshaping of the nation's research agenda is a matter of debate, but the shift highlights the notoriously poor job that most colleges do to prepare for presidential transitions. And it brings to the fore the stark reality that higher education is now a seller's market for the handful of candidates whom the nation's top-tier institutions are likely to view as worthy.

"We're seeing the graying of the presidency, which inevitably sooner or later is going to mean there will be successors and new presidents," says Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, which reported in 2007 that the average president was 60 years old, marking an eight-year increase in two decades. "I do think it's an important issue for American higher education, because it's also happening at a point of such significant change."

To some higher-education observers, the prospect of increased turnover in college presidencies presents an opening for greater diversity in a position long dominated by white men. Ms. Simmons, who is the first black president of an Ivy League institution and the first woman to lead Brown, says she is optimistic about the opportunities that will accompany a wave of likely retirements.

To some extent, the diversification that Ms. Simmons foresees is already under way. She cited, for example, the increasing number of female presidents, and the 2009 hiring of Jim Yong Kim, who is the first Asian-American president in the Ivy League. "To see that happen at Dartmouth was tremendous for me," she says.

While the likelihood of leadership turnover is by no means confined to major research institutions, this cohort has a significant number of presidents who have held their jobs for a considerable length of time. Among the 61 members of the Association of American Universities, a quarter have presidents who have served for more than eight years. Of that group, seven presidents are older than 64.

There appears to be no reliable data about the average length of a college presidency, but eight to 10 years is a commonly accepted figure. Respondents to the 2007 survey of college presidents conducted by the American Council on Education had been in office for an average of eight and a half years. Since the 2,148 survey participants included both new and longstanding leaders, the eight-and-a-half-year average is considered a fair measure of a standard presidential tenure.

"You have to think long term in these jobs, and that's usually a decade," says Scott S. Cowen, who at 65 has been Tulane University's president for 13 years. "When you get to the 10-year mark, you really have to do some soul searching about whether you are still adding value to the institution."

Rebuilding Tulane after Hurricane Katrina, which caused extensive damage to the campus in 2005, prompted Mr. Cowen to stay beyond a decade, he says. He gives no indication of when he might step aside.

Mark S. Wrighton, who has been president of Washington University in St. Louis for 16 years, says his longevity there has allowed him to see through major projects, particularly the expansion of the university's international programs.

His tenure has been one of rather remarkable continuity. While the deans of all seven schools at the university have changed since his appointment, he has always had the same right-hand man. Through a number of different titles, Edward S. Macias, now provost, has been chief academic officer from the beginning of Mr. Wrighton's presidency.

"If something were to happen to me, I think he could do this job and do it extraordinarily well," says Mr. Wrighton, who is 62.

Much has changed since Mr. Wrighton left the provost position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to take what would become the job of a lifetime. Even at MIT, e-mail in the mid-1990s still played second fiddle to what he called "the real mail." When he became Washington's president, he installed a car phone for the then-bargain price of about $3,000.

So much is different now, he says.

"I wonder when I go into a hotel if there are enough plugs here to power my devices," says Mr. Wrighton, who typically packs an iPad, a laptop, a Kindle, and a cellphone. "Who'd have ever thought?"

Plan? What Plan?

For reasons of tradition and culture, succession planning has long been anathema to higher education. While an heir apparent for Steve Jobs may have been a source of small comfort for Apple shareholders when he announced last month that he was stepping down, a president-in-waiting at most universities is viewed with suspicion and even antagonism by faculty and students, who are accustomed to having a say in choosing their leaders.

You're grooming whom? Not without a committee vote.

And it's not just students and faculty who would rather avoid talking about when a president may retire. It's the presidents themselves.

John T. Casteen III led the University of Virginia for 20 years, emerging as a veteran voice at the annual meetings of the Association of American Universities. In all of those gatherings, however, he seldom heard his colleagues even whisper about retiring until the decision had already been made. Taking any other approach could cause panic, he says.

"The culture is one where people don't talk about when they're leaving, because the departure is a major event for the campus, and it requires some calculation to make it a good event and not a bad event for the campus," says Mr. Casteen, who was 66 when he retired, in 2010.

Thus the common scenario of a president's exit as, essentially, an unplanned event. Few colleges have any protocol in place for what will happen once a president steps down, says Rita Bornstein, president emerita and a professor of philanthropy and leadership at Rollins College.

"Every institution should have" a plan "so they are not caught with their pants down," says Ms. Bornstein, who was 68 and had been president of Rollins for 14 years when she left the job, in 2004.

Boards should be encouraging presidents to identify and groom successor candidates on their own campuses, but instead there is a "dreadful lack of mentoring" in academe, says Ms. Bornstein, author of Succession Planning for the Higher Education Presidency (Association of Governing Boards Press, 2010).

In the absence of a succession plan, Ms. Bornstein says, colleges typically start from scratch every time a presidential search begins

The resistance to hiring internal candidates for the top job, while often unspoken, is revealed over and over again in higher education. Why hire one of us, the theory goes, when we could hire one better than us? That sentiment is particularly pronounced among members of the Association of American Universities, she says: "AAU institutions don't go down in the prestige pool for their presidents."

If a significant cluster of presidencies at prestigious research universities open up all at once, as some suspect they will soon, expect more deans to skip over the provost slot and head straight to the presidency, Ms. Bornstein adds. While there are many examples of deans' effectively moving into the top job, she warns that the learning curve is steep.

Basic math suggests that trustees at elite research institutions will need to recalibrate their expectations about what constitutes an ideal president, because "you probably don't have 12 people in the country that these universities view as qualified," says Jan Greenwood, an executive-search consultant. That small group of dream candidates typically includes a provost from a more-prestigious institution or a sitting president with a proven "entrepreneurial" record, she says.

"You've got a supply-and-demand issue that's hitting you in the face," says Ms. Greenwood, president and chief executive officer of Greenwood/Asher & Associates Inc., in Miramar Beach, Fla. "You have to deal with market realities."

The candidate pools could get even smaller if provosts, for whom the presidency has traditionally been viewed as the next logical step, are no longer interested in the job. A 2008 survey by the Council of Independent Colleges found that one-third of chief academic officers did not want to become presidents. Among their reasons were a lack of enthusiasm about the job of a modern college president and concern about life in such a high-profile position.

There are also many qualified academics who simply never make the transition into the administrative ranks because something is lost in doing so, says Hunter R. Rawlings III, president of the Association of American Universities.

"You have given up your bona fides in the eyes of the faculty," says Mr. Rawlings, a former president of Cornell University. "You have become, in a sense, corrupted in the eyes of many faculty members," who "begin to look at you as someone different. That's a hard thing for many of us to do."

Difficult as it may be, there will always be people willing to make the trade-off, says Ms. Simmons, who will return to Brown's faculty as a professor of literature and Africana studies at the end of the academic year. She describes herself as a deeply private person who had serious reservations about entering the "fishbowl" of the presidency, but says her belief in the important societal role of the American university ultimately won out.

"It's no fun to be followed around by a campus newspaper. It's no fun to have people writing blogs about you," she says. "And yet, if we cannot do this work without it, we must endure."

Brenda Medina contributed to this article.