Why Being a University President Isn’t a Stable Job Anymore

Their resignations, once rare, have seemingly become a frequent occurrence.
by | December 2016
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A generation ago, it wasn’t unusual for the president of a public college or university to stay on the job for 10 or 15 years. Today, that kind of stability is pretty much gone.

Lately, every month has seemed to bring news of a president stepping down in strained circumstances. It happened in June at the University of Louisville, in August at the University of California, Davis, and in October at the City College of New York. The details vary, but it’s clear that the job of university president is becoming more precarious all the time, all over the country. Of the 81 public universities in America classified as “Research 1” institutions, 56 have experienced presidential turnover over the past five years.

There are several reasons for this. For one thing, budgets for public colleges and universities are under severe stress. Nearly all states have cut support for higher education, and many of them have at the same time imposed caps on tuition increases. Presidents find themselves constantly second-guessed about spending priorities by politicians, faculty, alumni, parents and students. Even as states cut back on funding, they are demanding greater accountability and looking for measurable improvements, such as increased graduation rates, while questioning the worth of academic programs that don’t seem to lead directly to job placement. “More and more we see universities being subject to very short-term assessments, almost in the way that publicly traded companies are judged by quarterly income calls, without any agreement defining what constitutes success,” says Barmak Nassirian of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

Part of that dynamic is dealing with increasingly activist governing boards. As is the case with many charities and nonprofits, university board members are demanding greater transparency, and don’t shy away from telling management all the things it could be doing better. In the case of universities, board members often have a great deal of emotion invested in their alma maters, says Tania Reis, a management professor at Gannon University who studies higher education governance. “The group watching over the president or chancellor are usually people with close ties to that university,” she says. “They have ideas about how they want the university to be run, which may or may not be accurate.”

While presidents are trying to keep things running smoothly within a large and complex institution, they also have to cope with a newer phenomenon: social media. As the voice of their universities, presidents are under pressure to respond -- instantaneously, yet with tact -- to any number of situations that quickly come to a boil, whether they are public safety issues or protests over fees. Social media can spread the word of any trouble beyond the campus in a hurry. That might include the president herself coming under scrutiny for using university funds on personal expenses or taking the heat when a controversial speaker comes to campus. Regardless of the source of the complaint, the average age of a university president is 62, so the learning curve on dealing with strategic communications through Twitter or Snapchat is often steep.

Being a university president has always been a big and demanding job, with a broad portfolio of responsibilities. Now, with financial and enrollment pressures mounting, and decisions being questioned by actors inside and outside the institution, maybe it’s not a huge surprise that many of them decide they’d be better off bringing in more money consulting, or might be happier heading back to the classroom.