The Precarious Profession of University President

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

July 23, 2012

The time in office for public-university presidents is shrinking rapidly, notwithstanding the recent reinstatement of the University of Virginia's president, Teresa A. Sullivan. The high turnover, while alarming, should not be surprising. Average inflation-adjusted state appropriations per student for higher education fell 24 percent from 1986 to 2011, just as public universities have been asked to enroll increasing numbers of often less prepared students while maintaining quality.

Such financial challenges call for bold changes, which is precisely what universities are least accustomed to doing. Presidents find themselves sandwiched between state legislatures and governing boards demanding significant shifts in how the university operates, and faculty senates defending an academic culture that is both resilient and excruciatingly resistant to change. Think of the dilemma for a university president who faces the threat of dismissal by the governing board for failing to react quickly, and the ire of a hostile faculty if real change is begun. No wonder the reward for most university presidents who do little other than seek consensus is a short tenure in office.

The case of Carolyn A. (Biddy) Martin at the University of Wisconsin at Madison demonstrates the limits imposed on the discretionary actions of senior university leaders. Last year, then-Chancellor Martin, with the apparent prompting of the governor, proposed to expand the university's autonomy by breaking away from some restrictions imposed by the UW system. The key proposal would permit UW-Madison greater tuition autonomy, given its special status as a flagship research university.

This "plan" was vetted neither by the faculty in shared-governance processes nor by the system's board. Here, a rather modest (albeit threatening) effort to enact changes that benefited UW-Madison was criticized by other participants in the system, only marginally defended by UW-Madison faculty, and ultimately rejected by the board. Chancellor Martin subsequently left the university.

The more recent flurry of presidential departures reflects a university-governance structure that is poorly designed for the current challenging environment. The "resignation" and reinstatement of Sullivan in Virginia and earlier departures of Richard W. Lariviere from the University of Oregon and Michael Hogan from the University of Illinois can be construed as the results of conflict between university boards bent on imposing a "corporate style" market-based discipline and faculty unwilling to embrace reform.

Many leadership conflicts center on the efficacy of top-down control versus bottom-up consensus. Although the current governance structure is resistant to change, it worked well enough when universities were highly subsidized and able to afford the vast majority of initiatives. But an environment with limited and shrinking funds demands that difficult choices be made; the result is a contentious struggle over who is in charge. Who has the decision-making authority over whom? In public higher education, all claim to be the decision maker.

Wedged between their governing boards and their faculties, presidents find it difficult to lead assertively from the middle of an hourglass. Usually, as with Teresa Sullivan, it's safer from a career perspective to side with the faculty, particularly at a prestigious university like Virginia. Michael Hogan made the opposite mistake at the University of Illinois, siding with the governing board and then losing his job in a deluge of faculty criticism. In both cases, criticism was immediately diverted to the governing process itself rather than to a discussion of the substantive issues. This is the expected response of the shared-governance structure, and conflict over control nearly always prevails.

Among the issues deferred in the fight for control are shrinking financial resources; the growing population of nontraditional students; the challenge of for-profit rivals; the impact of the technological revolution; and the difficulty of maintaining expensive internal cross-subsidies, where tuition revenue from low-cost programs is used to support high-cost programs and reductions in teaching loads subsidize research. The most significant leadership challenge—excessive program scope—touches on all of those issues.

Scope will probably have to be reduced. Everyone has heard about the lack of student demand in areas like German and the classics; this is the tip of a large iceberg and was a contentious issue at the University of Virginia. Most universities offer hundreds of majors and a vast array of individual options, which developed over decades, primarily out of the interests of faculty. There is considerable resistance to eliminating any academic program, possibly because of the precedent set. Last spring nearly 60 low-enrollment programs were eliminated at the University of Northern Iowa, and the faculty promptly voted "no confidence" in the president and provost.

It's a familiar adage that "culture trumps strategy." Nowhere is entrenched culture more vigorously and ably defended than in public higher education, where faculty defenders have the protection of tenure and often the time and energy to engage in self-preservation. In this environment of strong boards on one side and shared governance on the other, leading is tough. And whether circumstances call for incremental adjustments or strategic leaps to keep campuses thriving, successful presidents will have to be tough, as well.

Gary C. Fethke is a professor and former dean of the Henry B. Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa. Andrew J. Policano is dean of the Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California at Irvine. Their book, Public No More: A New Path to Excellence for America's Public Universities, was recently published by Stanford University Press.