Academe Needs Courageous Leadership, but Too Often That Kills Careers

By Dennis Barden

“Leadership has a price,” said Michael Jordan in episode seven of The Last Dance. As leaders across higher education are finding, never has that statement been more true.

We find ourselves living through the purest test of leadership in most of our lifetimes. In the wake of COVID-19, higher education — indeed, the entirety of human enterprise — faces a crisis without precedent. It features extremely restricted resources and incomplete and often contradictory information. Add to the mix a 400-year-old sociocultural conflagration and a highly partisan political divide. The result: a calculation with no constants — only variables — and no consensus on resolution or how to reach it.

While college and university leaders work to coalesce a recovery plan, the battle lines have already been drawn. Some constituents, particularly among the faculty, have already declared that “University Leaders Are Failing.” Other observers have called for time and perspective, and urged critics to refrain from “Bashing Administrators While the University Burns.”

If what we are seeing in the public domain is actually representative of campus opinion — and I fear that it is — the divide between faculty and administration, in particular, seems wider and more difficult to bridge than at any time in my 40 years in higher education.

And that is saying something.

My perspective is that of a search consultant. My colleagues and I know that such a wide gulf on a campus will affect the hiring market for institutional leadership profoundly and in multiple ways. Some of those ways we can only imagine at this point, but others are all too predictable.

The last time an economic downturn devastated higher education was after the 2008 financial meltdown. One result was that senior institutional leaders across the country put their career plans on hold — delaying retirements, declining to be considered for new positions, and hunkering down generally until the economy improved sufficiently to provide a path forward for their institutions and themselves.

The same is happening now, but the circumstances are very different. A decade ago, not only did many presidents, provosts, and vice presidents feel an ethical imperative to remain in place to serve their institutions, but they couldn’t make a move even if they had wanted to. The financial crisis stalled the housing market, preventing many people from selling a home or buying a new one. Leaders who had been ready to retire watched their pensions lose half of their value. Sure, they felt a calling to stay and lead their campuses through the crisis — but they also couldn’t leave financially.

It will be different this time. Credit is plentiful and cheap. The stock market has bounced back to the level it would likely have found in a more cyclical correction. People can retire or buy a new home. If campus leaders stay on the job, it is likely to be primarily out of loyalty and a sense of duty. Many of those who stay will be making considerable career sacrifices to do so.

Last fall, I wrote in these pages about campus executives who “take one for the team” — they make extremely unpopular decisions (eliminating programs, laying people off, closing facilities, cutting budgets) to keep their institution in business — and pay a steep, personal price for it, careerwise.

But that was written before COVID-19 and the killing of George Floyd. Now, navigating completely uncharted waters, a lot of campus leaders are going to make a lot of decisions, and many of them will be viewed, rightly or wrongly, as mistakes. Many will take steps that they believe are in the best interest of their institution and will lose their job in the process. Their leadership careers will be forever impacted by those actions.

There simply are no right answers for this moment, and I highly doubt that consensus will develop over the coming weeks and months.

One of the reasons that leadership in higher education is so difficult — especially for job candidates moving from the commercial sector — is that every campus constituency has a different definition of success. There is no singular objective, like increasing shareholder value, that drives every decision on the campus. The faculty want something different from the trustees, whose objectives are different than those of the students and the alumni, who see the institution through different lenses than the administration. Each constituency judges institutional leadership idiosyncratically, considers its position righteous, and sees its right to opine on the job performance of campus leaders as sacrosanct.

Into that environment wades the search consultant. Among the most important of our responsibilities is to get to the bottom of controversies, to determine what happened and why, who someone is as a leader and what our client might expect on the basis of the candidate’s history.

In a typical presidential search, for example, we will conduct interviews, verify the candidates’ degrees and previous employment, bring psychometric assessments into play, and, of course, chat with references (both people on the official list and those off-list). A finalist’s references can vary in tone, even under the best of circumstances, but their assessments can be incredibly at odds when the leader has faced an extraordinary, even existential, crisis.

At some point, we will emerge from the multiple crises of this moment. When we do, most of the sitting leaders in higher education will experience that wide divergence of views about the effectiveness of their leadership. Some of the negatives will be well deserved and dispositive, but a lot of them will not be.

A recent experience — from before the COVID-19 closures — is illustrative. In a search for a CEO of a public research university, a candidate emerged from the pack, having shown obvious and considerable leadership qualities and experience. Yet that same leader was being targeted by his current governing board for removal for cause. All of us working on the search knew that from Day 1.

Over the course of several weeks, the search committee found the candidate compelling and recommended he be given serious consideration. As search consultants, our reputation was on the line, so our team conducted a robust array of references both on- and off-list. Our client conducted many dozens of both formal and informal conversations with people at the candidate’s home institution. In the meantime, that institution’s board had backed off on its plan to fire him but not on its efforts to discredit him.

At the end of the day, both our client and our team were confident that we understood what was happening in this scenario and that our candidate was being victimized. That, however, did not change the fact that the first 48 hours of the news cycle, should he be hired, would dredge up all of the old accusations without providing the very considerable context that our team and our client had discovered.

In this case, our client held firm and hired the candidate. Predictably, the news blew up, but the board stayed firm and stood behind the appointment. Only time will tell whether we added it all up correctly, but we are extremely enthusiastic for the future of the institution under this candidate’s leadership.

Not every board will put in this much work or stand firm in the face of ill winds, and a lot of capable leaders who are making very tough and bold choices now and in the months ahead will find they have sacrificed their futures in the process.

And higher education will be the poorer for it.

Taking a leadership post in higher education has never been such a risky career proposition. Doing the right thing for one’s institution will entail decisions like downsizing or even eliminating academic programs, recalibrating tuition rates, de-emphasizing intercollegiate athletics or, especially, eliminating positions, including those of tenured faculty. Higher education will require leadership that is innovative, nimble, highly collaborative, forward-looking and, perhaps above all, courageous.

That courage must start in the search process.

  • Trustees – and their adjuncts, search committees – must demonstrate insight in determining right from wrong, good decisions from bad, absent uproar from aggrieved constituents, when making decisions about candidates. Then they must stand strong in the face of often-uninformed blowback in the media.
  • Faculty must find the perspective to decide for themselves whether or not candidates are appropriate, not taking as a proxy the collective action of faculty at that candidate’s home institution. Real leaders make the tough call, regardless of the personal cost, and such decisions in a resource-constrained environment nearly always involve some constituency being unhappy.
  • Alumni, staff, and students must consider the entirety of a leader’s abilities and experience — in context, understanding the challenges of the current marketplace are affecting every institution and that there are no easy, painless answers to these vexing problems.

Good leaders know they may pay a price for making difficult decisions in hard times. Each institution must ensure that the price is reasonable, or there will be fewer and fewer good leaders who are willing to pay it.

This article originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Permission to reprint has been granted.

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