The Hardest Decision for Student Success: Hiring the Right President

By Watson Scott Swail, President & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

Many of us that study and work in the student retention field understand how complex and challenging it can be. The work involved in changing schools, environments, and cultures to improve student success in higher education can be daunting.

For institutional leadership that have to deal with state and federal guidelines, organizational budgets, human resources, and fundraising, student success can get lost in the shuffle. And when it is found, the issue can be, “what do we do?”

The hardest decision that any president, chancellor, or provost has to make is this regarding student success is this: deciding to do everything they can to make a difference. I have seen, first hand, what happens at institutions when they tinker with student success. A little program here; an FTE position focused on retention there; something that looks good but does remarkably little. These can be fine things, but they don’t move the needle of student success. The only thing that changes performance and behavior is an institutional-wide focus on student success, from the top down and the bottom up. I have yet to see it work any other way. And, unfortunately, many of these efforts seem to revolve around a particular person—leader—at campus. And when that person goes, so does the focus.

It is interesting to read job requirements in position postings for presidential openings at four-year institutions in particular. They talk so much about student success, but they want people who are experts in finance and business. They want people who “know people.” In other words, the institutions and their boards talk the talk but rarely walk the walk. They seldom hire the type of people that will focus on improving their institution via student success. Who do they hire? People who can increase the endowment. And who these leaders typically hire? People who can help them increase the endowment! I make some fun of this, but it is largely true.

I have no institutional measures of leadership, but it seems remarkable how many presidents appear to be lost in their job. Some, of course, were hired because they did something extraordinarily well which put them in line for a position of this magnitude. Many others are there because they climbed the administrative ladder. They paid the price by time and position. And others, of course, are simply well positioned, politically and financially. I would argue that not many presidents are hired because of their work, focus, and knowledge on student and institutional success. And not to simply focus on politicians, but look how many politicians have become college presidents. It has seemingly become a rite of passage for those who have been “retired” from politics by the democracy. Mitch Daniels, David Boren, Donna Shalala, Janet Napolitano, Robert Gates, Erskine Bowles, and Bob Kerrey are among the high-profile politicians who have served or currently serve as college presidents. It is argued that many of them did or are doing a good job in their positions.

However, there can be a danger when we want to improve education for students on one hand and hire powerful, well-known people who may lack the appreciation for the plight of the average student. This morning I read a Washington Post OpEd how education is littered by rich people trying to do good but not having a real handle on it. I will never decry our affluent from pouring their money into social work, such as education. But it becomes a different matter when someone without a clear understanding and appreciation for the academy starts mucking up the waters. In particular, the OpEd focuses on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who has spent much of her life and money focused on privatizing and chartering schools in Michigan, a state with a tremendously poor track record in education. This is the state that decided to fund education through sales tax rather than property tax back in 1993. (As an aside, the Michigan State Senate passed the law to repeal the use of property taxes to fund public education that year without even having a replacement for it. Sound familiar?). He also pushed through charter school legislation as governor.

And, as I digress, the guy who led that fight was Governor John Engler. Guess what John does now? He is the interim President of Michigan State University. Last fall, Betsy DeVos named him chair of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP. NAEP, AKA “The Nation’s Report Card,” is a big deal, and being chair of NAEP is a big deal. Engler, for what it’s worth, became a Washington lobbyist when he left the governor’s mansion back in 2003. For reference, his 2016 paycheck as President of the right-leaning Business Roundtable was $2,734,678.

I’m not sure who to blame on our inability to improve student success in the United States. Is it the presidents, who are hired to do so many things on campus, including and supposedly student success? Is it the boards, who are enticed by shiny items such as globalizing their institutions with campuses in Dubai and Qatar? Or is it simply the public, who allows all of this to go on.

To be fair, not all of the challenges we have in student success are because of the president of an institution. We have set up a dynamic for our 18-24-year-olds by expecting more and more of them to get a “higher” education without the requisite academic wherewithal to do so. We have set the bar so high based on this misperception that higher education is the only road to a successful career and fulfilling life. We do this by showing, time after time, the return in earnings by degree—a disservice to every other avenue to wealth, well-being, and prosperity.

In the end, we admit students to institutions where they won’t succeed and surely can’t afford. And somehow, we think this is good. Perhaps success starts with hiring the right people to focus institutions on learning and success. People who can realistically improve their institution to serve students, who, in turn, can serve society. Maybe the hardest decision is coming to terms with what student success entails and who can lead it.


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