Politics and the Pandemic Are Straining the Role of Campus Leadership

In South Carolina, emails from a recently resigned university president reveal the hostility he felt from some board and faculty members. In Michigan, a university president agrees to leave early with reportedly tepid board support. In Nevada, a system chancellor formally complains against board members, alleging they micromanaged her and created a hostile work environment.

Taken separately, these examples may seem like campus-specific flash points. But altogether they show how campus and system leaders increasingly find themselves in impossible jobs, caught between competing demands from a governing board, often with a partisan agenda, and campus constituents who demand autonomy and are sometimes unaware of the institution’s financial constraints.

Higher education has been under increased pressure for decades because of the increased demands of federal and state regulations, the growing corporatization of campus operations, and the intense competition for students and philanthropic dollars.

Because of financial pressures and the 24/7 news cycle, governing boards feel an urgency to act when problems arise, said Roderick J. McDavis, former president of Ohio University and managing principal of AGB Search. If they feel the president is the problem, they are no longer willing to wait two or three years to see if things get better, he said.

In the past year, the financial and emotional toll of the pandemic have also forced campus leaders to make decisions on issues that were once nearly unthinkable: for one, the mass closure of physical campuses to prevent the spread of a dangerous pathogen.

At the same time, the partisan divide over the value of higher education and issues of racial and gender equity have made higher education a front in the nation’s culture wars and put it in the crosshairs of politicians and activists.

The growing duress on college presidents has led to public clashes, resignations, no-confidence votes, and even a lawsuit over issues that in the past may have been politely papered over with a laudatory press release at a resignation or concealed by the secrecy of a governing board’s executive session.

“In the past, a president may have resigned quietly and we paid no attention,” said Felecia Commodore, an associate professor of educational foundations and leadership at Old Dominion University. “But the campus climate and the political pressures have pushed some issues to the top that haven’t been prominent before,” she said.

‘You Have A Mismatch’

The number of presidents who have left their jobs over the past 18 months has gotten a lot of attention, with many experts and search consultants attributing turnover to the stresses of managing during the pandemic.

One of the more striking examples of a leadership failure played out this spring with the resignation of Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen Jr. as president of the University of South Carolina. Caslen’s appointment as president had been controversial from the start because of the pressure on the Board of Trustees from Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican.

Caslen stepped down in May after acknowledging that he had plagiarized part of a commencement speech. Though he took responsibility for the incident, emails obtained by The Post and Courier revealed the deep distrust between Caslen and some members of the Board of Trustees.

Caslen’s appointment was a mismatch, in part, because of Caslen’s experience as superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, said Brendan Cantwell, an associate professor of educational administration at Michigan State University. “His background was in an organization with more hierarchical order and where people follow orders,” said Cantwell.

Many governing boards, politicians, and donors expect presidents to have exactly this kind of authority, Cantwell said, like a CEO who has near complete control of the corporation. Many university administrations reflect this goal through their salaries and organizational structures, Cantwell said, but that’s not how leadership really works on most campuses.

“University presidents are most effective when they arrange activities within the university to run by themselves in a manner that is consistent with goals,” he said, “You can’t direct things; you have to have buy-in.”

“Many boards want someone who is decisive, who is able to tell people what to do, when to do it, how to do it,” he said. “When you select someone for an organization that doesn’t run that way,” Cantwell said, “you have a mismatch.”

While presidents are usually the focus of leadership failures, conflict from or within the governing board can also play a significant role.

At the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, for example, President Mark Schlissel has weathered a significant number of crises, but recently agreed to step aside no later than July 2023, a full year before his current contract expires. News accounts from the Detroit Free-Press, detail tensions between Schlissel and the board over how the president managed the Covid-19 crisis, allegations of sexual misconduct against the former provost, and the demise of a university building project in downtown Detroit.

In this case, Cantwell said, the deal to allow Schlissel to leave early represents a split on the University of Michigan regents between those who continue to support Schlissel and those who wanted him pushed out much sooner.

‘Politics Come Into Play’

As boards increasingly look to the president as a corporate-style leader, faculty members still expect a president to be the academic-in-chief.

McDavis said both perspectives are legitimate, but many faculty members, as well as students and alumni, may not realize how much the job of being president has changed in the past decade. In particular, he said, presidents may now spend half or more of their time on fund raising.

But the pandemic has exacerbated the conflicts between the faculty and boards about the role and priority of the president, said Kevin McClure, an associate professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

“For presidents it can be difficult to satisfy the board and campus constituents,” McClure said, “particularly during Covid when the board is thinking about the health of the institution and people on campus are worrying about their physical health.”

The pandemic has also heightened the political tensions between governing boards and the faculty, he said. “Politics come into play because most boards are more conservative than the average person on campus and even most presidents,” McClure said. For example, while boards may be outspoken in resisting vaccine and mask mandates — turning them into political wedge issues — presidents have largely sought to make those issues less controversial.

The political views of board members may also make it more difficult for a president to prioritize issues of racial and gender equity, said Commodore, the Old Dominion professor. The board’s primary responsibility is to ensure a colleges’ fiscal health, but the composition of most boards may make it hard for them to understand how other challenges facing colleges, such as the demands for racial and gender equity, are also important to colleges and can have a financial impact.

“Look at the makeup of boards,” Commodore said, “mostly people from business and older white men. I wonder if they even have the framework to see how these issues affect the bottom line?”

The growing tensions in leadership will continue until the public and politicians have a better understanding of the role of boards and a way to assess their performance.

“Boards need to be held accountable, but what does that mean?” Commodore asked. “We have no real measurement for determining if boards are high functioning,” she said. “We can think of characteristics, but we can’t evaluate the board the same way we evaluate the president.

“If the president keeps changing but the board isn’t changing,” she said, “you’re going to get the same results.”

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