A Warped View of Leadership

by Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, EPI International/Educational Policy Institute

In both InsideHigherEd.com and the Chronicle of Higher Education this morning is an article about the ousting of the President of Baylor University, John Lilley, and second Baylor President ousted in the past three years. This comes on the heels of our Summer Institute on Student Success held at Old Dominion University this week, where we spoke in depth yesterday about the role of leadership in promoting student retention and success and producing organizational change.

I have much respect for many presidents in higher education. A good president is essential to true organizational change and promoting the importance of serving students. A good president understands when and how to lead, and when to leave well enough alone. Lilley didn’t appear to have any of those skills. He got bogged down in the tenure process and then also found himself in the middle of a branding change of the University’s football team. From what I’ve read, I’m thinking he was way out of step on both these issues.

The problem, from my point of view, is that of the thousands of colleges and universities in the US and Canada, there are far too many presidents that simply shouldn’t have been hired into those positions. I know of many scenarios where the person in command simply did not possess the appropriate skill sets, the personal attributes, or the historical understanding of higher education to succeed at the job. But once in, they never leave that higher echelon of higher education. They just move around like a merry-go-round, moving from institution-to-institution, making $300k to $600k a year in each job.

Take a look at some of the institutions around North America who have “retread” leadership from other universities. In very few of these cases did they leave the first institution on their own. They were fired or allowed to “leave” under a cloud. In the past year we have seen this play out several times in the US and Canada. Most recently, a former president of an eastern Canadian university found a plum job in western Canada. Good luck, BC.

I just don’t get it. Did anyone think of calling the former employers or references for these people? Do you think there just might be a reason they were let go? Do you want someone who quite apparently can’t handle the politics of dancing?

The problem with higher education leadership is that a disturbingly high percentage of presidents are far too pompous for their own good. They have the great job, a ton or responsibility, and make a lot of money. This, apparently, gives them the authority to behave like arrogant buttheads. In the past 10 years, I can show you this at large public universities in Wisconsin, Maryland, and California, to name a few.

If you ask faculty, staff, and students at universities that have well-liked leaders, the answers will be the same: they lead with passion and vision while incorporating a sense of decency and fairness. These are leaders who others want to follow because they have trust in the vision and feel at ease in their presence.

Today’s higher education world requires that presidents become rainmakers, bringing in lucrative contracts and grants for the expansion of the university. This is understood. But it isn’t a license to forget about the other aspects of leadership and running an institution. Failure in leadership is a huge issue in higher education. Too many presidents have higher-ed envy and are guilty of mission creep. They want to build “their” university in “their” way, regardless of the collateral damage that is left in the wake of their bid for more.

Who’s fault is this? The list is long. The Board of Trustees or Visitors ultimately hold the key to leadership, and I think many boards are sustained by directors who just don’t understand the complexity of higher education. They just want the names and the expansive CVs to look at (rule of thumb: if there are too many stops on a CV, that’s a red flag). Also, many directors come from the business world—not a bad thing in itself—but when a majority of the members are spun from that silk, they tend to look at only those skill sets on the business side of the ledger and not on the other skills, such as soft skills and understanding of academic issues on a campus.

Second are the academic senate and faculty. They have soooo much strength on campus that they can push a search way too far. One hopes that the Board and the Senate counterbalance each other. I’m not so sure this happens too often.

Third are the search firms that are more omnipresent than ever. Some of these firms earn over $100,000 for an individual search. Their job is to provide a vetted list of potential aspirants to the Selection Committee for consideration. I’m also not so sure that these companies do such a great job, because they are playing the paper chase game, too. Whoever looks better on paper wins.

What bothers me most is how these people get hired at universities on almost a carte blanche basis.

We need great leadership in higher education. We deserve that much. But we’ve built a system that doesn’t necessarily provide it.

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