Transitions In American College Leadership These Days

To glimpse the tumultuous transitions in American college leadership these days, look no further than the witnesses set to testify at a congressional hearing on Thursday, the fourth in a fiery series on campus antisemitism that has helped topple two university presidents. Jonathan Holloway, the Rutgers University president and possible contender to succeed the Yale leader who is stepping down next month, will speak. So will Chancellor Gene D. Block of the University of California, Los Angeles, who will leave his post in July and hand off his job of 17 years to someone so far unnamed.

Yale would have already been announced. But the uncertainties from California to Connecticut show just how complex top campus jobs have become in an environment that has grown increasingly polarized. Since December, Cornell, Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania have abruptly announced presidential departures, with Harvard and Penn’s departures coming after widely derided appearances before Congress.

And last week, Mike Lee, Sonoma State University’s president, retired after the California State University’s chancellor said that an announcement about an agreement he had made with pro-Palestinian protesters was sent without the appropriate approvals and an act of insubordination.” Another witness on Thursday, Michael H. Schill, the president of Northwestern University, has been in his job only since 2022 but has faced calls for his resignation over a deal he struck with demonstrators American College Leadership These Days.

There’s always something going down in higher ed, and these are hard jobs on a good day,” said Margaret Spellings, a former president of the University of North Carolina System who noted that especially now, the nation’s campuses were the front lines of the American public square.” Jonathan Holloway, the president of Rutgers University, is seen as a contender for the Yale presidency.Credit.Sam Hodgson for The Presidential posts have always been challenging. The jobs can require the aplomb of a diplomat and sterling scholarship, as well as the talents to raise money from demanding alumni, manage exacting faculty members and connect with maturing students — all while conjuring a spirited enthusiasm for football.

But today, even top-tier presidencies — buffeted by protests and politicians, personal attacks and endless scrutiny — do not always appeal as they once did. I can see why people would be reluctant and think twice about it, said the Rev. John I. Jenkins, whose nearly 19-year run as the University of Notre Dame’s president will conclude this month. It’s not for the faint of heart. A 2022 survey by the American Council on Education found that incumbent presidents were generally newer to their roles than in the past but that more than half expected to step down within five years. In Massachusetts, 12 of the 58 private school presidencies have been vacant in the past year, according to Steven DiSalvo, the president of Endicott College in suburban Boston.

Facing Political and Financial Pressures, University Boards

Appear to have grown even more allergic to risk, and searches have lately grown more rigorous, with sweeping background investigations and new screenings for plagiarism that can lead to dozens of hours of eye-glazing reviews. A plagiarism check wasn’t something that was done in the past,” said Nicholas B. Dirks, a former chancellor at the University of California, Berkeley. But they are becoming more common after plagiarism claims against Claudine Gay played a role in her stepping down as Harvard’s president this past winter.

Stanford University, for example, chose Jonathan Levin as its next president, turning to someone who was an undergraduate there in the 1990s and joined the faculty in 2000. Richard K. Lyons, who will take over at Berkeley in July, has even longer connections to his campus: He earned his undergraduate degree there in 1982 and has been a faculty member since 1993. Boards have also been willing to keep interim presidents for protracted spells. When Martha E. Pollack, Cornell’s president for the past seven years, announced this month that she would retire in June, the university said it would delay a search for her replacement for at least 15 months. Penn has put off a public hunt for a permanent president, even though M. Elizabeth Magill resigned in December. It’s a process that takes time.” U.C.L.A. and Yale did not respond to inquiries about their presidential searches.

Some potential presidents are as wary as schools. Dr. Dirks

A persistent challenge is that presidents must contend with so many constituents — students, parents, faculty members, other university employees, public officials, donors, alumni, athletic program sponsors — with competing interests. The position becomes one in which it makes no difference what you do, someone is going to be after you,” said Michael M. Crow, Arizona State University’s president. (“Boy, your alums, if they don’t like something going on, especially in athletics, they’re on it,” Richard B. Myers, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who later served as president of Kansas State University, said with a chuckle.)

Mark Yudof, who led the University of California and the University of Texas systems, compared a presidency to serving as mayor or governor. You don’t even know everything that’s happening at your university, much less in the wider world,” said Mr. Yudof, whose first presidency was at the University of Minnesota. Even at smaller colleges, the pressures have grown, intensified by social media. Marjorie Hass, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, said presidents were fielding grievances from everyone from students to members of religious denominations that fund schools. And at any moment, national and international debates threaten to ram into campus life with startling speed and intensity. In presidential election years, many leaders said, it can be even worse, as poisoned national discourse swamps campuses American College Leadership These Days.

To become a part of the greater political narrative and the focus, you don’t necessarily come into the positions for that,” said Quinton T. Ross Jr., the president of Alabama State University and a former state legislator. You really don’t. But it’s par for the course.” Few university presidents openly acknowledge doubts about their jobs, even as some hedge on their eagerness to take similar roles again. Despite the turmoil, Daniel Diermeier, Vanderbilt University’s chancellor, believes the urgent demands today could ultimately make the jobs more gratifying. You’d much rather be prime minister of Britain in ’43 than ’53,” he said. If you go in this direction, don’t you want to do it when it matters? Yes, it’s more difficult. Yes, it’s more stressful. But, after all, we want to have an impact, right? And when the stakes are high, your leadership matters more American College Leadership These Days.”

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