University presidential exodus is a sign of the great storm ahead in higher education

Presidents at Columbia University, New York University, and Howard University have announced retirement plans, with all three leaders declaring their exits just this week. They join a growing culture of executive leaders in higher education who, with the existential threat of covid more understood and under control, have decided that enough is enough. 

They are like most people in the shadows of a global pandemic; taking stock of what matters, counting money that has been hard-earned, and looking ahead at ways their leadership legacies can afford them greater comforts than a life of servitude under a multitude of masters. They also are expert readers of writing on the wall that in most cases is painted in invisible ink; fewer people can afford or want to go to college, politics are more intrusive in the university setting than they’ve ever been, and stakeholder groups are going to be increasingly demanding of the campus as a catalyst for social, economic and political change that it wasn’t designed to deliver. 

This isn’t good news for higher education. The industry, at all levels of leadership and work product, is designed to thrive when people stay in place for years or at least make succession a part of institutional culture. When boards have tumult, or when presidents leave and executive cabinets are changed over, it leaves institutions adrift in rough seas and jerked around to new directions. New groups come in with new agendas and falling regard for the missions of institutions with each new appointment. 

Leadership stability sets the terms for enrollment, community engagement, athletic development, construction management, and industrial agenda setting. Instability means changing value systems and outcomes in all of these areas because every board member and every leader measures success differently and wants to leave a distinct legacy, not simply a contributing chapter in the story of an institution. 

So what does all of this mean to the industry? Bloated salaries are going to get higher because it’s going to be harder to find quality, willing leaders to take organizations already on the precipice of an industrial bubble burst. Politicians and board members will grow more aggressive in leaning on leaders to aid in political gamesmanship and moving pieces on a chessboard of construction contracts, personal favors, and perks. 

While it will be difficult to change direction every 3-5 years on typical higher education work, important issues like campus tech infrastructure security, aging physical plants, and increasing racial and ethnic hostilities, will be increasingly ignored. Philanthropy to higher education will drop because long-term relationships with wealthy donors will be that much harder to maintain with new faces coming into new spaces. 

If heavy is the head that wears the crown, what happens when no one wants or is able to keep it on?

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