The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The job nobody can seem to keep: college president

The Baptist Temple on Temple University’s campus in Philadelphia, shown in this file photo from 2007. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
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When Temple University hired Neil Theobald as its president in 2013, some at the Philadelphia institution with 37,000 students described his selection as a harbinger of things to come in higher education. Unlike many of his counterparts at major universities who arrived at their jobs immediately after stints as provosts or deans, Theobald had been the chief financial officer at Indiana University.

Theobald represented a new type of president from the business side of the operation at a time when universities were facing economic headwinds and needed leaders with financial acumen. That’s why the saga playing out at Temple right now is so remarkable. Theobald’s job is on the line for supposedly allowing a $22 million shortfall in the university’s merit-scholarship program. On Tuesday, the university’s board of trustees announced its intention to dismiss Theobald.

Theobald, of course, is not alone. In the past year, there have been several other high-profile resignations or firings: R. Bowen Loftin at the University of Missouri, Tom Rochon at Ithaca College, Simon Newman at Mount St. Mary’s, Phyllis Wise at the University of Illinois, to name just a few. And like Theobald, many of them didn’t last very long in their jobs.

40 percent of U.S. colleges enroll fewer than 1,000 students

What also makes these departures problematic is that the traditional pipeline to the presidency is running dry. Just 30 percent of sitting provosts want to become presidents, according to the American Council on Education. And this finding comes just when many presidents are expected to retire. The average age of college presidents is 61 (compared with 56 for the typical corporate CEO). Nearly six in 10 presidents are 61 or older, a proportion that has grown in recent years.

Being a college or university president is a much more complex job than it was a decade or two ago. Beyond the well-known budget issues facing institutions, presidents are constantly in fundraising mode and they have several important constituencies to please from alumni to faculty members to students — and at any one time, one of those groups is upset about something.

It’s clear that the skills that characterize today’s crop of college presidents likely will be different for a new generation of presidents who will oversee rapid transformations in teaching, learning and technology on campuses in the next decade, as well as how their institutions are financed.

Mount St. Mary’s University and the dilemma facing American higher education

What are the skills needed in these future leaders?

I recently asked this question when the Arizona State University-Georgetown University Academy for Innovative Higher Education Leadership brought together two groups of officials from inside and outside of academia to discuss the attributes of future college presidents. In the session facilitated by the Education Design Lab, there was surprising amount of agreement about the skills needed. Among the attributes that were repeated often: risk-taker, visionary, passionate about educational access for students, data driven, and strategic communicator.

That last one was of particular concern among the participants because there was a sense that few college presidents today are like the giants of previous generations — leaders such as the University of California’s Clark Kerr or Notre Dame’s Rev. Theodore Hesburgh — who took on national issues and built a narrative that explained the wider purpose of higher education. Several officials blamed the dearth of narrators among university presidents as the primary reason why states are cutting higher education appropriations and the public is increasing questioning the value of a college degree.

Few at the meetings mentioned the word “academic,” though many said that college leaders need to be “intellectual,” a term they didn’t necessarily associate with having followed a traditional academic career as a scholar, professor, and researcher.

If colleges and universities are going to fill their leadership void in the coming years, they will have little choice but to consider candidates who didn’t follow those typical pathways through academia or who come from nontraditional backgrounds. Even when that happens, there is no guarantee they will last in the job, as the presidencies of Neil Theobald at Temple and Simon Newman at Mount St. Mary’s clearly exhibit.