Position Papers

Position Paper:

College Presidencies Under Fire

      The resignation of Lawrence Summers as president of Harvard University is symptomatic of a deep, increasing problem in America’s colleges and universities. The same conclusion could be drawn from the ouster of the president at American University in Washington last Fall for drawing a salary that trustee committees themselves approved, and from a number of other sudden firings and resignations of presidents in American higher education.

      I am not arguing that Larry Summers should not have been reprimanded or even fired; there are details at Harvard that none of us on the outside will ever know about this situation. What I am arguing, however, is that presidents of American universities are no longer secure from ouster when they appear to have been successful in raising money, building endowments, or carrying out their original charge from the trustees who hired them. In other words, there seems to be no assurance any longer that college presidents will be protected when they do their jobs well.

      But doesn’t all of this come with the territory if you want to be a CEO? Not in the corporate world, it doesn’t. There, it is the performance of the institution that matters, and CEOs, quite rightly, are fired for the failure of the company to measure up to the goals set for the company by its board. Why, then, are non-profit CEOs more vulnerable than ever, even when they appear to be carrying out their stated obligations?

     One very important reason is the general breakdown in American society of a hierarchy of leadership in which those above establish goals for those below, and then take responsibility for evaluating and correcting shortcomings. That is what presidents themselves are supposed to do with vice presidents on college campuses, and what those vice presidents are to do with deans, and so on. Lawrence Summers was doomed when Harvard trustees decided to talk privately to disaffected faculty about his performance, rather than reaching their own independent judgment, based on his success or failure to carry out the goals they had previously established for him. (Of course, it is possible that he did fail to carry out some of the trustees’ goals for him; but why not just say so, and then make a joint statement—trustees and Summers—that it was time for him to move on, after accomplishing much of what they had asked him to do? Thank you very much, Dr. Summers.)

      College presidencies today, in the words of one former president at a premier college, are being “eviscerated”. Increasingly, presidents are not welcome by trustees and faculty to take charge of their institutions, even though the presidents and their staffs as a rule know more about non-profit management than do trustees or faculty. Non-profit management is a more subtle and complex process than managing a company in which a tangible product is being sold, and good college presidents know that issues like customer service and staff morale are even more urgent in non-profit situations. For example, how non-academic staff relate to students on campus usually has a greater effect on student satisfaction and retention than whether students perceive faculty to be doing their job. Lawrence Summers was criticized for his blunt management style; yet trustees and faculty are often suspicious of presidents who put as much emphasis on campus management (regardless of style) as they do on fund-raising or new revenue-producing programs.

     Whether or not their roles are understood, presidents are seldom evaluated aggressively by trustees on the basis of the charge they gave the presidents when they were hired. The very lack of ongoing, rigorous evaluation by the next level up in the hierarchy opens the door to the kind of disrespectful conduct that Lawrence Summers was occasionally guilty of, as well as the assumption by faculty that they are in a good position to evaluate the president of the college. In what other line of work are non-managers asked to evaluate senior management, or, on the other hand, are senior management given as much free reign to exercise their personal whims, at times to the embarrassment of the university?

     Lawrence Summers and Harvard will be fine, as they move into the future. Of more importance in this whole affair is the public’s realization that colleges and universities, even if they are not profit-making organizations, must be run by managers with real authority—that those managers must be trusted to do their jobs and then be regularly and fairly evaluated by those above them in the hierarchy.

     Faculty embody the central mission at any American college. Trustees are the legal guardians of that mission. But presidents and their staffs must be respected as the men and women who make their institutions carry out that mission with the resources they have found to do the job. That respect is no longer the norm in American education.

© 2006 by David C. Stinebeck