The Trend Line for Presidential Tenure in Higher Ed

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

Dr. Judith Wilde, Research Professor and Chief Operating Officer of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, discusses the trend line for presidential tenure in higher education and what institutions are and should be looking for in their presidential searches.

You're listening to enrollment growth university from Helix Education, the best professional development podcast for higher education leaders looking to grow enrollment at their college or university. Whether you're looking for fresh enrollment growth techniques and strategies or tools and resources, you've come to the right place. Let's get into the show. Welcome back to enrollment growth university, a proud member of the connect Edu podcast network. I'm Eric Olson with Helix Education and we're here today with Dr Judith Wildy, research professor at the Shore School of policy and government at George Mason University. Judith, welcome to the show. Thank you, Eric. At the shore school we do a lot with policy, so this research and what we'll be talking about fits right in there. That's why I think you're going to be a tremendous guest. So excited to talk with you about the trendslined for presidential tenure in higher education and what institutions are and potentially should be looking for in their presidential searches. But before we dig in, can you give the listeners a little background on both George Mason University and your role there? Sure, I went to George Mason University actually working with an interim deane who was looking towards becoming Dean and then did become dean, with the caveat that he hire a true administrator, which became me actually, as chief operating officer. My background has been actually for thirty years in the education of English learners around the country and at the national level, so I had a lot of administrative experience. Once there I started doing research in other areas, including dealing with various aspects of university and college presidents. Love it. Love that background is going to come in so handy today. Judith, to kick us off today, remind us of the broad trendline we're seeing in terms of university presidential tenure. Sure...

...along that line, tenure is definitely shortening. In one thousand nine hundred and seventy five presidents that were hired in that year served any up to thirty nine years, with an average of just over nine years of service. Those hired in two thousand five serve served a maximum of twenty three years, with an average of a little under eight. And that's the research that we have done, my research partner Jim Finkelstein and I have done, but it pretty closely matches as matches what the American Council on Education shows as well. Their data should most recently show six point five years on average for a president. Also, a lot of people are surprised that seventy five percent of presidents are one and done so. It's not like most presidents hop from one university or college to another. The vast majority are a president once and and they've had it. Wow, yeah, yeah, they are, they've had it, or or that they've been forced out or the schools have yes, yeah, and so well. And so with that, why do you believe the presidential search process in higher at itself maybe fundamentally flawed? I think there are a couple of reasons. One is something I can't really research, but I think in my mind there are an awful lot of colleges and universities who find they need a new president and they immediately begin the search process. I think it would be really important for them to sit back, have an interim for maybe a year and really think about what they need, not just that they need a president, but what kinds of skills do they need right now to fix whatever...

...issues might be happening, to fix what had the reason that of most recent president has left because we are seeing that happen much more quickly, but to really look at their own needs before they begin a search. That's one aspect. Another aspect, I think, is the use of search firms within the process of hiring a president. Probably the most important thing that a board of governors, whether you call them trustees, directors. In Virginia we call them the Board of visitors, whatever you call them, the most important thing in their job is to find a new president. However, hardly any people who serve on a board of Governors has been involved in this process before. So when a search firm comes the in I my undergraduate major was European thought and culture in the medieval and renaissance period. So here's my analogy. They come writing in like a night and shining armor and say we can do it for you, we can take over all this horrendous paperwork and we will give you a great president. And we're not always finding that happens. We did a study in two thousand fifteen and sixteen that is unlikely to was the first ever done looking at search from contracts. It's not likely to ever be able to be redone because more and more search firms are putting into their contracts that they own the data. If they own the data, the search firms do not have to respond to Fu your request, and that's how we got our data. was through for your request. So we looked at the actual contracts between search firms and the university and the biggest thing that surprised us was the lack...

...of due diligence. We found about twelve different things that might be considered due diligence. The one that most that was most often referenced in contracts, was looking at degrees or past, actually past job experiences, and those were done in were referenced in fifty one percent of the contracts we had. All the rest of due diligence was less than that. Due Diligence with regard to the degrees they held, whatever their background was in education was looked at by forty three percent of the contracts, which is not very many when you really want to get at it and find out about a person, and from there on it drops out down precipitously. So if you're not finding out enough about your presidents, that's a problem. And in addition, many of these contracts specifically state that either they will check these items based on publicly available information. Now I don't know. They didn't define what that was. I can tell you if on my linkedin page, if I want to say PhD, MD and DDS. Who's going to stop me? Okay, so there isn't a lot of due diligence. And then what they do? Many of them do not warrant the work, in other words, they won't guarantee that what they tell you is accurate. Now, along with that we see a great increase in the percentage of universities that are using these search firms. We were asked about that a lot after we did this first study. So we went back and...

...started in nineteen seventy five and for every ten years we looked at the use of search firms. So we have fifty years of data across five decades. In one thousand, nine hundred and seventy five, two percent of colleges or universities used a search firm and it was only private institutions. In Two thousand and fifteen sixteen it was ninety two percent and roughly equal percentages of private and public. So that's adding to the problem. Well, I mean, Judith, I may have lied about my credentials, but I'm an excellent fundraiser. So I think you should ignore those things. But let's actually talk about that because in terms of what universities are looking for in new presidents, I've heard many conciduates across campuses have very different desires, one being we want an academical lead that can have a great relationship and share governance with our faculty. I've heard we want someone who can drive enrollments like it's a business. I've heard we want a good figurehead, mascot, and I say that not in the pejorative sids, just their the reality of the benefits of that. I've heard fundraising is everything. That's the entire game. Now what do universities and maybe search teams think the strengths of the role of president need to be versus? What should they be looking for? What actually makes a college presidential president successful and stick in the role? That's difficult because I think in many cases there isn't just a tried and true this is the right kind of person, and that's why I started by emphasizing the lack of due diligence, because a lot of searches are failing, number of are failing, a lot of presidents are leaving more quickly, even though when they were hired it was thought that they...

...would be the perfect person, and so it's difficult. And then you add to that. We just recently just end of two thousand and twenty one. We did a study looking at the most prestigious and largest search firms and one of the things we found we looked at those who read the search firm. These aren't necessarily the people who will be the worker bees when they're helping you with the search, but they are the leaders and the ones who will really help determine how things go in the search. And what we found we had found twenty two leaders across twenty one search firms. There were only four of those who'd ever been a president. There was one person who had been a tenured faculty member, a Dean, a provost and a president. He also was the only person of color that we identify. That I think should be an issue when you have people who've been really hardly worked at a university at all or worked in a staff position. One leader has been the executive assistant to a president, one was a contingent faculty member. Only are these the people who can help you find the right kind of president. Some search firms have had issues because of their due diligence and present that's one of the reasons for finding that presidents are not lasting quite as long in some cases, and this isn't brand new. And Two Thousand and twelve, the president of University of Tulsa was fired after seventy four days. Two Thousand and thirteen, the University of Wyoming President was forced to resign after less than six months. So it goes back quite a while. Most recently, just last year, Oregon...

State University the President resigned after nine months when it became known that his at his previous presidency, report was released dual detailing the mishandling of sexual conduct allegations and title nine procedures while he was president. So I guess maybe, coming background to your actual question, maybe one of the things that we need to have in a president is someone that we really know the background of, because that's where we seem to have a lot of problems, is things that are not learned about the president until it's too late. Two Thousand and nineteen, the University of Oklahoma President resigned after eleven months. There was a lot, a lot of number of things written about him and many people were very upset when it became known that he would be the final candidate and the drum roll came out and he was the president and after eleven months you know if they had done good dude diligence. He did exactly at Oklahoma what he did in his previous positions, which were not within academia, but come in and clean up and get rid of people and get rid of programs, and that's what he did in the business world and they thought it was work as president of the university. It did not. And unfortunately the added thing is when you have a president leath quickly, they invariably leave with a lot of money. So we have this thirty year trend line of maybe I'm trying to figure out what it is. We have likely a much higher level of transparency. We are probably much more aware of a candidates flaws. It's easier to to see those and communicate those potentially are are level of patients is changing, the competitive...

...nature of the industry is is harder with the demographic shifts that have happened after two thousand and eight. Do you believe that being a successful college president is harder today than ever before? Have the dynamics themselves changed in what a president needs to be to be successful? Well, first of all, I have to to disagree with one thing you said about greater transparency. We're actually finding that with these searches there is less and less transparency and that the search firms and or the universities are requiring everyone on the search committee to sign DA's nondisclosure announcement or agreements, some of which we have seen are egregious enough that they suggest that if you ever in your entire life mention anything about this search, you could go to jail, you could lose tenure, you could be fired. Okay, those are pretty drastic outcomes for a faculty or staff member. So what we really find is the best way to have transparency is to let the faculty use their networks. It's like the old six degrees from given Kevin Bacon game. You know, if if you ask me about a potential president, I may not know that person, but I may know someone in another university who knows somebody who knows them. When there is nothing that when people are not allowed to speak the name of any any candidate or allowed to talk about the benefits of one candidate or issues around a candidate, and only one candidate is brought forward at the very end. That immediately gives many faculty members...

...the feeling that they don't count and why should they trust this person whom they know nothing about? Judith. Finally, any next steps? Advice for an institution embarking on a new presidential search? Absolutely yes, I do have thoughts on that one is while I've founded very negative about search firms, you think, yes, I will say that there is a place for them, but I think it's a place that care needs to be carefully defined. The contract for services. We have seen many contracts. We collected them as part of our research study and whenever we are asked about a contract for a president or for the search for a president, we will not comment on the contract unless we have it in our hand, because we don't want to comment on someone else's interpretation. What we found is that most of these contracts are a simple letter written on the letterhead of the search firm and the then the university signs it. Many of them, as I mentioned, do not have due diligence involved or very minimal. Many of them do not have a work plan or a timeline or any kind of expectancies listed in there. I think if those happen at are in the contract, that can help. The search committee needs to have some power. They need to help create a detailed job announcement that really talks about just what you've been asking me. What are the specific requirements for this president in this job? What are the AD bill attributes, the skills or knowledge that would be helpful or preferred, and are there any hot button issues that are important to the campus right now that the president needs to be a where of? So you know when that's done, then the governing...

...board, the faculty and the staff can all work together to develop a process and work towards a finding a new president. You know the the idea that search for like to promulgate that the only way to find a good candidate is to keep everything secret. First of all, you know, we really don't tried to delve into that and we can't find search firms will tell you that there are presidents who've been fired when they had when it's become known that they have been in the pool for another search, but they will not give any names and we cannot find any. The only one we've been able to actually identify is at within Montana, where the president went to her board of Governors and said I'm not seeking another person. I have been sought, though. I am in a candidate not because I thought this, they went the board, went into conference. That came out and gave her a fifty percent race. Now I don't see that it's a problem myself, and it seems to me that if you are a president who is good at at with donors, you're good with your faculty and the staff respect you and the board wants to keep you, they're not going to find are you. They're going to do whatever they can to keep you. Judah thoughts. Incredibly helpful conversation, both for our listeners who are apartment of a current or upcoming presidential search for listeners who would like to be in consideration for these roles moving forward. I loved your under the hood look today. Thank you so much for your time. What's the best place for listeners to reach out to you if they have any follow up questions for you or your team? If they do, they can always reach me by email. That's the easiest thing, which is just my...

...name with no dots, no DASH's. Judas Wild Jud ith wil D at gmailcom. Awesome, Judah. Thanks so much for joining us today. No problem. Thank you. Attracting today's new post traditional learners means adopting new enrollment strategies. Helix educations data driven, enterprise wide approach to enrollment growth is uniquely helping colleges and universities thrive in this new education landscape, and Helix has just published the second edition of their enrollment growth playbook with fifty percent brand new content on how institutions can solve today's most pressing enrollment growth challenges. Downloaded today for free at Helix Educationcom. Playbook. You've been listening to enrollment growth university from Helix Education. To ensure that you never miss an episode, subscribe to the show in Itunes or your favorite podcast player. Thank you so much for listening. Until next time.

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