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Presidencies Derailed: Why University Leaders Fail and How to Prevent It

reviewed by D. Bruce Johnstone - July 31, 2014

coverTitle: Presidencies Derailed: Why University Leaders Fail and How to Prevent It
Author(s): Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, Gerald B. Kauvar, & E. Grady Bogue
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore
ISBN: 1421410249, Pages: 184, Year: 2013
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Presidencies Derailed is a compact, provocative, mostly beautifully written accounting of causes for, and lessons to be learned from, presidencies that fail before the end of their initial contracts (or expected terms). The authors focus on first term derailments because, while there are always causes, and while most (although not all) causes reflect some kind of lapse (or worse) on the part of the presidents who resigned prematurely or were abruptly fired, these unfortunate and costly experiences also generally represent failures in the governing board’s processes to search, select, launch, and nurture their new campus leaders. Derailments are enormously costly, whether measured in the lost time and morale of the governing board members and other stakeholders involved in the failed search, a fracturing of what traditions of shared governance may have existed, a similar fracturing of governing board cohesiveness (although such pre-existing fractures may have had a major hand in the derailment), in the monetary cost of a new search, in the loss of important constituencies and donors, and in disrupted campus plans.

Presidential derailments are not uncommon: the authors cite some 50 college, university, and system heads who resigned, retired prematurely, or were overtly fired in 2009 and 2010. While drawing on personal experiences, the extensive literature on college and university governance, and on the literature of leadership styles and transitions in the corporate world, much of the meat of the analysis relies on 16 extensive case studies of presidential derailments: four studies each of failed presidencies in private liberal arts colleges, public masters-level institutions, public research universities, and public community colleges.

The causes for presidential derailments are usually multiple, complex, and contested. They are generally given great play in the media (both print and social) while shrouded in official secrecy and exacerbated by extensive rumors and diverse personal agendas. As the case studies were real and necessarily involved real or perceived ethical lapses, damaged careers, humiliation, and sometimes lawsuits, the authors have disguised the names of the persons and institutions studied. The cases and the generalizations drawn from them are recounted with great sensitivity and deference to the complexities and multiple perceptions involved with such experiences. At the same time, they do not shy away from identifying the widespread perceptions of moral and ethical lapses, political corruption, and dysfunctional behavior that so frequently derail campus heads.

The sixteen very diverse case studies are cleverly woven together with the six derailment themes, all of which were found in some of the cases, and most cases revealing several. Four of the themes were taken from the literature of failures in business leadership, all of which seem equally applicable to college and university presidential derailments. These were: (a) failure to meet institutional objectives and needs; (b) problems with interpersonal relationships (whether with board members, faculty, executive staff, or community leaders); (c) inability to lead key constituencies, including inability to build and develop a strong executive staff, delegate appropriately, and be generally accepted as a leader who has listened widely and acted with sensitivity and integrity for the good of the institution; and (d) difficulty adapting, including difficulty or unwillingness to comprehend the institutional history and culture when making the decisions for the long term good of the institution. To these four generic leadership failures, and drawn from the case studies as well as their own leadership experiences, the authors add two that they believe to be more peculiar to institutions of higher education (whether public or private, large or small, or elite research campuses or less selective teaching institutions): (e) ethical lapses and (f) board shortcomings.

Ethical lapses, real and perceived, present a particular vulnerability to higher educational leaders. Colleges and universities, especially to the faculty and the general public, are presumed to be all about the noble profession of teaching, rigorous adherence to high and objective standards, and the search for the truth regardless of where it may lead. The heightened importance of integrity and ethics to colleges and universities is complicated, but made all the more necessary by the freedom of the faculty to research and to teach with minimal supervision—the right behavior being enforced more by codes of academic professional conduct, which are presumed to be especially enshrined in the office of the president. However, all kinds of common administrative behavior dance on the edges of these academic ideals: subtle and not so subtle admission preferences to sons and daughters of donors or powerful politicians; lowering admission standards to accommodate athletic coaches; presidential salaries that far exceed the salaries of the best faculty, presidential expenditures on travel and entertainment when faculty positions and library budgets are being cut, and the like. Such lapses more often than not may be matters of questionable judgement in a particular context; but if there are other weaknesses or institutional problems, a matter of poor judgement can become an ethical lapse and precipitate a derailment.

Finally, the theme of board shortcomings include the failure to agree upon the desired qualities for the new leader, to thoroughly vet candidates, to accommodate the views of faculty and other key stakeholders, and to appropriately evaluate and nurture the new leader. At the end of the day, the selection—and the support, and when necessary, the termination—of the institution’s president is the most important function of a public or private non-profit board. So the responsibility for derailments ultimately lies with governing boards.

Some personal take-aways from this this excellent book include:

The mixed quality of more than a few public institutional—and especially public system—governing boards, with all too many examples of ineptitude, indifference, and ideological agendas overriding a proper concern for the good of the institution or system, the indispensable role of universities in the quest for new knowledge and social justice, and the welfare of current and future students;

The dysfunctional way that colleges and universities—public and private alike—choose leaders, with virtually no attention to strategic succession planning and with disproportionate amounts of time, money, and consensus-seeking taken up in a process that too frequently leads to failure;

The pernicious myth that leadership is all about vision and that implementation and institutionalization are of lesser importance and can be relegated to others;

The folly of a new president charging in with a courageous vision to remake (or to restructure) the institution with little or no consideration of its history, conceivable market niche, or of the almost inevitable opposition from the faculty—even if the governing board (or some of the governing board members) believe this to be the appropriate charge to the new leader; and

The degree to which men and women aspiring to the presumed prestige and power of the office will miss all of the signals that a governing board is confused, split, and/or insufficiently engaged, that the institution’s finances are hopelessly precarious, and that the existing faculty and staff are not only unwilling but are probably unable to accommodate a radically different mission.

This is an outstanding book about college and university governance, drawn both from the rich experience of the three authors and from careful case studies. It is at times repetitive and a bit disjointed, with multiple section headings going back and forth between the individual cases (with their fictitious names of leaders and institutions) and the six overriding themes. It does not sufficiently deal with the considerable differences between public campus boards or councils—which are frequently only advisory but with critical roles to play in the search for a new campus president—and true multi-campus system governing boards and the system heads that are responsible for the ultimate appointment of the institutional heads. But for those minor flaws, Presidencies Derailed is one of the best recent books on college and university governance and ought to be required reading for aspiring presidents, new presidents, and all members of institutional and system governing boards.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 31, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17631, Date Accessed: 12/4/2021 9:23:52 PM

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About the Author
  • D. Johnstone
    SUNY Buffalo
    E-mail Author
    D. BRUCE JOHNSTONE is distinguished service professor emeritus at the University at Buffalo, a scholar of higher educational finance and governance in domestic and international comparative contexts, former president of Buffalo State College, and chancellor emeritus of the State University of New York system.
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