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Succession Problems at the University

It is becoming more and more obvious that the lame duck position of President Bruininks is a hindrance in handling current and upcoming challenges. It would have been wise, in hindsight, to have started the search last year for his successor. That way the new president would have had a little time to get up to speed before we go over the financial cliff.

Unfortunately waiting this long makes the new job less desirable to an outsider. Perhaps this was actually the idea?

A headhunter comments on situations such as these in a recent edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Dennis Barden, April 25, 1010

[Dennis M. Barden is a senior vice president and director of the higher-education
practice at Witt/Kieffer, an executive-search firm that specializes in searches for
academic and administrative leaders in academe, health care, and nonprofit
organizations.]

Why do presidents stay too long in a job? Why do they risk their accomplishments--and thus, their legacy--by overstaying their welcome? Is it hubris? Self-deception? Duty?

In the past couple of years, I have had two search assignments that derived from
presidents staying too long. In both cases, the incumbents had been viewed as
terrifically successful, especially early in their tenures.

Then they ran out of gas.
They stopped going the extra mile to be personally engaged in campus life. They spent more time with family and friends and less at campus events. Rather than sacrifice their personal lives, they spent less time on the road raising money and making friends for their institutions.

Perhaps most problematically, their circle of advisers became narrower and narrower until key decisions seemed to be coming from only an inner circle of close confidants, or worse, from their own imaginations.

The rest is a familiar story. Key constituents lost track of their relationships with the presidents. Preternatural academic politics began to take the place of open discourse. Conspiracy theories abounded, in some cases urged on by the presidents' detractors. The trustees supported the presidents for a while-- perhaps too long--justly grateful for services rendered in earlier times.

Then why do people hang on past their expiration dates?

I can see various reasons, but they all seem to stem from an eroding sense of self-awareness. Presidents--the vast majority of them, anyway--work like mad to position their institutions for greater success. But that work tends to isolate leaders from key constituencies, particularly internal ones.

Presidents seldom become more accessible as their tenure lengthens. All those factors interfere with a clear-headed sense of the institution and of the self that guided the president at the outset.

  • It is becoming more and more obvious that the lame duck position of President Bruininks is a hindrance in handling current and upcoming challenges. It would have been wise, in hindsight, to have started the search last year for his successor. That way the new president would have had a little time to get up to speed before we go over the financial cliff.
  • Unfortunately waiting this long makes the new job less desirable to an outsider. Perhaps this was actually the idea?
  • A headhunter comments on situations such as these in a recent edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education:
  • Dennis Barden, April 25, 1010
  • [Dennis M. Barden is a senior vice president and director of the higher-education
  • practice at Witt/Kieffer, an executive-search firm that specializes in searches for
  • academic and administrative leaders in academe, health care, and nonprofit
  • organizations.]
  • Why do presidents stay too long in a job? Why do they risk their
  • accomplishments--and thus, their legacy--by overstaying their welcome? Is it
  • hubris? Self-deception? Duty?
  • In the past couple of years, I have had two search assignments that derived from
  • presidents staying too long. In both cases, the incumbents had been viewed as
  • terrifically successful, especially early in their tenures.
  • Then they ran out of gas. They stopped going the extra mile to be personally
  • engaged in campus life. They spent more time with family and friends and less at
  • campus events. Rather than sacrifice their personal lives, they spent less time on
  • the road raising money and making friends for their institutions.
  • Perhaps most problematically, their circle of advisers became narrower and
  • narrower until key decisions seemed to be coming from only an inner circle of
  • close confidants, or worse, from their own imaginations.
  • The rest is a familiar story. Key constituents lost track of their relationships with the
  • presidents. Preternatural academic politics began to take the place of open
  • discourse. Conspiracy theories abounded, in some cases urged on by the
  • presidents' detractors. The trustees supported the presidents for a while--
  • perhaps too long--justly grateful for services rendered in earlier times.
  • Then why do people hang on past their expiration dates?
  • I can see various reasons, but they all seem to stem from an eroding sense of
  • self-awareness. Presidents--the vast majority of them, anyway--work like mad to
  • position their institutions for greater success. But that work tends to isolate leaders
  • from key constituencies, particularly internal ones.
  • Presidents seldom become more accessible as their tenure lengthens. All those
  • factors interfere with a clear-headed sense of the institution and of the self
  • that guided the president at the outset.
  • Presidents need some sort of unfettered, unbiased system of feedback,
  • someone to whisper in their ears, "Remember, thou art mortal. "Presidents need some sort of unfettered, unbiased system of feedback, someone to whisper in their ears, "Remember, thou art mortal."
  • In reality, though, boards work that way all too infrequently. Some are absentee, taking the president's word for conditions on the ground at the institution. A great many possess that most attractive human combination of empathy and gratitude that nonetheless leads all too often to tolerance--and inaction.

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