Pressure Cooker

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 21, 2007

At dozens of colleges this month, graduates will get diplomas, hug their parents, toss their caps in the air. But it's not just students who are starting anew this commencement season: Many of the schools are, too.

There has been lots of turnover in leadership at Washington universities recently, shaking up schools that have had the same presidents for many years.

That means new leaders for the city's largest private employer (George Washington University), one of the country's most elite historically black universities (Howard), and the only liberal arts college for deaf people (Gallaudet) -- leaders who will make decisions that affect not only students and research, but neighborhoods, jobs, hospitals, real estate and the intellectual life of the place.

And "they may be a precursor for a major shift in higher education," said David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

Some longtime presidents remain in the area -- at George Mason University, the University of Maryland Baltimore County and elsewhere. But after years of stability, with many local presidents long outlasting the eight-year national average, the higher education terrain is shifting -- at some schools, dramatically.

Last month, William J. Frawley, the new president of the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, was fired soon after he was charged with driving while intoxicated on two consecutive days.

At Gallaudet University, protests set off by the choice of a new president paralyzed the school and brought international attention during the fall, ending with the board yanking the appointment.

And when Benjamin Ladner was forced out of American University a year and a half ago in a spending scandal that reverberated nationally, it made some trustees more aggressive about oversight.

"The climate in boardrooms has changed, and not for the better," said Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity University in Washington, who soon will find herself, with 18 years in the job, the longest-serving leader in the 15-member Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area. "There's a fine line between asking tough questions, probing, holding leaders accountable -- and making it so unpleasant to hold the executive office that people just can't do it anymore."

Some presidents have told her, "I don't need this."

Frank Wu, a trustee at Gallaudet, said, "The increasing complexity of colleges and universities, heavy regulation, intense public scrutiny, demands for fundraising, relentless pursuit of rankings -- each has dramatically increased the pressure, and together they've transformed the college presidency."

Warren said he could sum it up in a single word, all caps: MORE. More of everything is expected from presidents.

There's other pressure, too: Colleges are among the last true democracies, Wu said; people lower in rank can band together to force the chief out.

Can and do, as faculty and students in Washington showed recently. The board makes the decision on hiring and firing presidents. But the campus community sure can ratchet up things.

There are new presidents at the Corcoran College of Art and Design and Montgomery College, and new ones coming this summer to George Washington University and Prince George's Community College. Howard University's president has announced he's stepping down next year.

Some said the local turnover is a sign of a growing national trend. A study by the American Council on Education found that half of college presidents are older than 60. "When you have half of your entire workforce in that retirement category, that implies huge change" coming, said Ray Cotton, a lawyer with expertise in higher education and presidential contracts. "I would call it a tsunami of change of presidential leadership in the U.S."

It's really a time when boards will be challenged to find new leadership," he added.

Some said it's easier to recruit someone to Washington, with all the opportunities it affords. Others think it's particularly tough, because city and national politics get layered onto the normal stresses of the job.

"It's a pressure cooker here," Cotton said. "When you're the president of a university in D.C., you're in the national limelight."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company