Who will lead your university in the future?


Universities are seeing increasing turnover in leadership, but that might not always be a good thing for the institution- or for you as a faculty member. What are the factors institutions should consider before a vote of no confidence?

Jason W. Osborne, Miami University

Jason W. Osborne served as Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs at Miami University from 2019–2022.

As we work to establish a new normal in post-pandemic higher education, it is clear that the past few years have taken a toll on institutions, faculty, staff, students, society… and academic and institutional leaders. Before 2020, these jobs were already challenging, but now students, faculty, staff, and other stakeholders seem more eager than ever to oust those they hired to lead their institutions, whether it is because of crime in the city, the venue for a fundraising eventdigitizing library resourcesaffordabilityconcerns over leadership/ethics, or perceived lack of shared governance.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, seven out of the past eight years have seen the highest number of no confidence votes ever recorded, and many leaders have resigned or been pushed out without formal votes of no confidence. While it is difficult to quantify the scope of the current churn in leadership ranks, the American Council on Education noted that the average presidential tenure has decreased 23.5% since 2006, from 8.5 years to 6.5 years in 2017, and there is good reason to believe the average tenure will decrease significantly again when the 2023 data are released. For provosts, turnover is quicker and more widespread, with one study estimating that 50% of provosts had turned over in the past 36 months, followed closely by deans (42–44% turnover) and leaders in advancement, enrollment management/admissions, financial/business, and student life/student affairs (37%-41%). There is little data on other leaders, including department heads/chairs, associate and assistant deans/provosts, AVPs, and so forth, but one could expect similar patterns for these challenging positions.

There is much to be upset about in the higher education world these days. Yet institutional leadership matters a great deal, and having the right leader is crucial in these challenging times. Fresh perspectives and new leadership are often warranted and desirable, yet frequent turnover in key leadership positions might incur serious institutional costs. Institutions and their stakeholder groups must have a range of responses to disappointment or frustration, and laying all of the institution’s ills at the feet of the president (or provost, or dean, or board of trustees) is likely overly simplistic and potentially damaging. When undesirable events or situations develop, I would suggest that a range of responses be considered. These could include replacing the leader, but it could also include investing in leadership development or development for the leadership team. If one were to view institutional leaders as a resource rather than “the enemy,” then institutions might engage in rich and thoughtful conversations about the type of leadership the institution needs, and whether the potential benefits of seeking a change in leaders might outweigh the likely costs.

Below is a list of some factors that campus stakeholders might want to consider when faced with frustrating or troubling events:

Jason Wingard recently stepped down as President of Temple University after facing challenges like striking graduate students and crime off campus.

1. Is the event that is concerning you something that the leader has specific control over? There are many things that upset me every day in this world. While we often want to blame someone for things we disagree with — budget cuts, reductions in degree programs, an assault on or near campus, a discriminatory incident, state policy changes, and so forth- the reality is that the person taking the blame might not have specific control over what happened. Leaders often must take actions to comply with regulations, statutes, or directives. Leaders often are unable to act in other cases, such as when speech is distasteful but allowed by law or when people are accused but not yet convicted of offenses. So, while things may feel personally upsetting, you might want to ask whether that individual (a) had specific control over the situation, (b) was working in good faith for the best interests of the entire institution, and © consulted appropriately with shared governance in making the decision. It might be the case that you are upset with the message or messenger, and in this case, adverse actions against the leader could be contrary to the best interests of the institution- and you.

2. Does the leader share my interests and concerns? In general, I suggest that your leaders and you have a shared interest- a thriving, vibrant, and successful institution. While there is often talk of the “corporatization of higher education,” only about 15% of presidents come from outside the academy, and even in these cases, a leader’s personal self interest is often closely aligned with the broad, long-term interests of the faculty, staff, and students. Non-profit colleges and universities have no incentive to slash budgets or cut lines unless it is really necessary. No leader wants to be the one taking adverse actions, so if your institution is facing this situation (as many are right now), I would recommend asking why your president, provost, or dean is recommending cuts, really looking at long term trends in net revenue and expenses, and being open to the fact that the long-term health of the institution might require some short-term budget cuts or reallocations. Consider the likely outcomes if the cuts are not made- there are many examples of institutions who refused to accept reality until it dramatic action was necessary, often resulting in much broader, long-term damage to reputation and mission.

Kristina Johnson announced her resignation from Ohio State after serving only a couple years as president. She previously served only three years as SUNY Chancellor.

3. Are we looking at frequent leader turnover, and can that cause reputational damage? While I was a faculty member early in my career, a very good institution went through provosts about every 18 months. This means that there was no stable academic leadership, direction, strategy, or progress for many years at a time, and yet we were investing significant financial resources and faculty and staff energy in national search after national search. What we didn’t talk about was whether repeated turnover in leadership can cause reputational harm to the institution which may adversely impact the ability to recruit future leaders. Potential candidates watch trends, researching you as closely as you research them, and the strongest candidates may be reluctant to consider a position at an institution that could derail or damage their career or reputation, or lead to a short tenure. I recommend thinking about how your future as a member of an institution is aligned with the reputation of the institution, and how fragile that reputation can be. It is in your interest to ensure your institution is seen as a great place to work for everyone- including those who serve as your leaders.

4. Are we providing effective support and leadership development to ensure the institution is benefitting from this significant investment? Consider that even a seasoned leader — internal or external- will need time to learn a new position, which may slow down or derail important initiatives and progress on strategic priorities. If it takes six to nine months to search for a senior leader once there is a vacancy, and it takes the new leader another six to nine months to really get their legs under them. That means your institution could lose up to 18 months of effective leadership- where nationally, provosts are averaging only about three years tenure, for example. That is an exceptional cost to an institution in the fast-moving and increasingly uncertain times we face in higher education, and might argue that institutions invest in supporting and retaining leaders rather than replacing them every few years.

5. Who takes over if a leader steps down? These are typically mission-critical positions that must be filled, so when a vacancy occurs, you often see a series of interim appointments, placing burdens on those who already had a mission-critical, full-time job. Then others have to assume their vacated roles (or worse, they have to fulfill both roles), and so on. Interim positions can provide opportunities for deserving leaders to shine, but also leaves many within your institution on the steep part of the learning curve simultaneously and often, abruptly, and temporarily, meaning they may be limited in how extensively they can steer the strategic direction of the institution. These cascading effects on an institution may disrupt key initiatives.

University of Southern Maine organizational chart

6. How much does it cost to replace senior leaders? When leader steps down, the institution risks losing institutional knowledge and momentum toward strategic priorities- these can be serious costs in themselves. There are also substantial monetary costs of a search, which also requires valuable time from faculty, staff, students, and other stakeholders that could otherwise be spent on other priorities. That former leader may return to the faculty, typically after a sabbatical, and often at a higher than typical salary for an indefinite period of time. Startup costs to ramp up a research lab or get ready for the classroom may be added in as well. Moving and relocation costs are not insignificant if a new hire is coming from out of town. All of this is a great investment when new leadership is truly needed and an waste of time and resources if it is happening too frequently as the sole remedy for discontent on campus.

7. How long will it take the new leader to develop the significant relationships that are required to run an institution? Relationships matter in higher education and it takes lots of time and energy for leaders to create and nurture valuable external relationships with alumni, corporate leaders, donors, and government partners. It takes just as long to build the internal relationships that are required to run a complicated institution. There are few institutions that can gladly forego years of donations and support from advancement, but replacing key leaders (deans, provost, president, VP for advancement, etc.) may adversely impact fundraising, which reduces potential support for faculty, students, and academic priorities. One must ask, for example, whether a vote of no confidence is worth the potential loss of support the institution would otherwise gain in retaining and supporting that individual.

8. Will a new leader amplify existing strategic goals and efforts or want to bring entirely new priorities and agendas? There are times when an institution needs some new perspectives and energy, but executing real change in higher education can take many years to complete. Frequent turnover can lead to an environment of constant whipsawing between ambitious agendas and managing the interim periods, then adjusting to new vision and goals, then managing interim periods, and so on. This can be disheartening to stakeholders who put valuable time into the prior strategic plan, and can leave an institution stagnating when others are driving forward. Once lost, competitive advantage is difficult to regain.

In summary…

Turnover in leadership can be valuable or necessary to move an institution forward. In the often heated discussions of campus discontent, it might be worthwhile to ask what might be lost if leaders are removed. Campus stakeholders must consider the many costs of turnover to evaluate whether it is needed and likely to be a net benefit. Remembering that most leaders in academia are coming from the faculty, having sat where you now sit, and often having had no formal leadership training, might it be worth asking whether the leader has strengths and opportunities for growth, and it might be beneficial for students, faculty, staff, and the institution as a whole to support the current human in the role, who is likely working very hard every day to support you and the best interests of the institution.