Forbes Names “Leadership Matters” one of the Top 10 Books in Higher Education
Academic Innovators is delighted to announce Leadership Matters: Confronting the Hard Choices Facing Higher Education, a book co-authored by two of its principals (Joey King and Brian C. Mitchell), was named as one of the Top Ten Books in Higher Education for 2022 by Forbes. The book describes how leaders in higher education can overcome the various challenges they face including shifts in the societal, economic and political landscape.
The book offers guidance on how senior leaders within higher education must adapt to our rapidly changing society in order to remain a sustainable business and institution. Some factors for consideration outlined by King and Mitchell include: “modernizing their practices, monetizing their assets, focusing on core educational strategies, and linking explicitly to the modern world.”
King and Mitchell draw on their decades of experience in higher education to inform the ideas and findings offered in Leadership Matters. King is a past president of Lyon College and previously served as senior advisor to the president of Emory & Henry College. He has also served as executive director of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, vice president of innovation at Southwestern University, and as executive director of Connexions at Rice University.
Mitchell previously served as president of Bucknell University, Washington & Jefferson College, and the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania. He has also served in numerous leadership and governance roles in higher education, including chair of the board of Merrimack College, chair of the Pennsylvania Committee for the Rhodes Scholarships, the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania, and the Patriot League Athletic Conference (Division I).
“We are honored to receive this recognition from Forbes,” said Brian C. Mitchell, author and principal of Academic Innovators. “We recognize the overwhelming challenges faced by our successors and their colleagues and we feel it’s our obligation as stewards of higher education to ensure they’re best equipped to face them. It is our sincere hope that the frameworks and ideas put forth in this book help colleges and universities not only create greater stability for their institutions but also provide them with a solid foundation upon which they can build a sustainable future for their respective organizations.”
Published by Johns Hopkins University Press, Leadership Matters is the second book published in the series following their first, How to Run a College: A Practical Guide for Trustees, Faculty, Administrators, and Policymakers. King and Mitchell will author a third book which is expected to be published in 2027.
Academic Innovators Principal Brian Mitchell was recently quoted in an article featured on Inside Higher Ed which discussed VMI’s decision to honor a controversial former leader. Mitchell provided the following commentary:
“If [governing boards] feel that the issues that surrounded the president weren’t put to rest internally, by the alumni or other groups, they’ll often try to close it out. And if they can close it out, they can move on,” said Brian Mitchell, a former president of Bucknell University and co-author of Leadership Matters: Confronting the Hard Choices Facing Higher Education and other works.
You can read the full article here on Insider Higher Ed
An appeal to Leadership to Take a Closer Look
By Rick Gaumer, Principal – Academic Innovators
The higher education community continues to adjust to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. With the spring 2022 term concluding, the Omicron variant is receding in many areas across the country, yet statistics are still showing outbreaks around the country. Institutions continue to wrestle with on campus health issues that challenged them during the last two years of the pandemic. Larger schools, like Arizona State University, can partner with the Mayo Clinic on its main campus to provide superlative student healthcare support for their students. Smaller colleges and universities simply cannot afford or offer such accommodations.
A recent Inside Higher Education Survey of Presidents, for example, revealed that 96% of respondents now see mental health as a primary concern on their campuses. Further, 77% see physical health of students as a deepening crisis. For small, private colleges, in particular, the financial concerns have grown dramatically with reduced revenues from housing and board, made worse by deep tuition discounts offered by colleges to boost enrollment. Despite federal subsidies from the Trump and Biden administrations – now beginning to end — colleges are being pushed to the brink, particularly with a teetering tuition revenue model unable to sustain a post-pandemic recovery after the federal money runs out. Yet, these fiscal woes fail to mask a critical question. Are colleges and universities today doing their best to provide essential physical, mental, and wellness care for their students? Can we do better?
As someone with a very broad view of the Higher Education landscape having served over my many years as a Trustee, a CFO, a tenured faculty member, and a long-standing community business leader seeking better and better graduates to employ, I am very concerned about the area of student physical and mental healthcare on campus, especially as we come out of this pandemic. Schools continue to be strapped for financial resources and finding qualified health professionals to serve roles as nurses and counselors is extremely difficult. Further, the mental health needs on campus are growing exponentially. My question for leadership in Higher Education is this: Are there better ways to support Student Physical and Mental Health as we go forward?
What options do Schools have today for supporting Student Physical and Mental Health on campus? Let’s be frank:
- Schools can maintain the pre-pandemic status quo level of service. For smaller schools this might be a full or part time nurse for physical health. It might be a full or part time counselor for student mental health needs. For larger schools, they often maintain larger health offices with better staffing. Keep in mind, most of these services are staffed in a traditional 40-hour workweek concept by regular employees of the school. Such support fails in areas of Evening and Weekend service as well as in areas of professional diversity for students of varied backgrounds.
- Schools can add full or part time resources. Both small and larger schools find this option difficult due to budget constraints and the difficulty of paying higher salaries demanded in today’s job market. Again, does this option create adequate coverage 24/7 going to be available and will be there be adequate professional diversity to support the student body?
- Schools can partner with local hospitals and third-party resources for live or tele-med services. Not a bad idea, it does provide the institution greater coverage in the evening or on weekends and does broaden the base of professionals to support the student. A downside is the increased cost of such services and the inconvenience of not being on campus.
- Schools can utilize a third-party, 24/7 provider network. These networks can be both cost effective as well as more effective in dealing with a highly-diverse student population. We really like those providers who provide this service to all students regardless of insurance status and can effectively support students who seek race and gender preferences for their physical and mental health needs.
- Schools can begin to adopt emerging mental health and behavior analysis software tools being used commercially and now being adapted to Higher Education. We are seeing such tools being deployed to positively effect student behaviors before they get out of control. For example, we are aware of tools now available on student cell phones to instantaneously gather information, deploy artificial intelligence and big data to enable all student-support departments across campus to effectively improve the student experience. The end result is greater support of students with behavioral issues, improved student academic performance, and improved student retention on campus.
In my current role in Higher Education, I am seeking to find ‘best practice’ solutions for a number of compelling problems facing our schools which seek to improve financial sustainability. Spending more money on expanded student support in the area of health care may appear to be counter-intuitive, especially coming from someone who typically manages the budgets and the purse strings. Yet, leaders must understand the core business of their institution: the effective education and training of students; culminating in their graduation. Inadequately supporting student physical and mental health needs must be addressed if this mission is to be met.
One last word. How a college provides expanded health service to students should not be a financial obstacle. Rather it should be looked at as a strategic decision aimed at providing ‘best care’ health support for all students. It can and should be a ‘competitive differentiator’, driving up overall enrollments. Again, the question is simple: Can our institution do a better job in supporting essential student healthcare on our campus? Leaders with fiduciary responsibilities should take a moment and think hard before answering.
About Rick Gaumer. Rick is a Trustee of Waldorf University [Iowa]. Further, he is a principal with Academic Innovators, a national thought-leader firm focused exclusively on higher education, with an emphasis on identifying innovative and ‘best practice’ solutions to improve long-term growth and financial sustainability for the institution. Rick is also an experienced executive having served as CFO for both Emory & Henry College [VA] and Lyon College [AR].
One definition of a college president is that he or she lives in a big house and carries a tin cup to search for money. A more accurate analysis might be that a president has a corporate title working as a 19th century political boss trying to manage a medieval craft guild.
A senior official at a large foundation asked me recently why college and university presidents fail to exert their influence as opinion makers in American society. It is a good question and an important one. Why do higher education leaders govern but seldom lead?
One definition of a president is that they live in a big house and carry a tin cup to search for money. A more accurate analysis might be that presidents have a corporate title working as a 19th century political boss trying to manage a medieval craft guild.
And therein lies the problem — the job has evolved but the national imperative for presidents to lead as well as govern remains constant. And presidents — who preside over universities that are America’s incubators of ideas — are ideally positioned to make a significant contribution.
There are obstacles. Higher education leadership trains for the technical and is spotty, episodic, and inconsistent. There is no farm league from which to pull promising candidates into the majors. New presidents are drawn from an increasingly wide field of applicants, and there is little evidence of trustee initiated succession planning. The system under which American higher education operates — shared governance — values process and consensus over outcomes.
Presidents live in a highly charged political environment in which passion flares even when the issues are small. One humorous story told about a major research university is that that although there was no decision on the issue the faculty were still pleased because they were certain that they had won the debate. Further, presidents report to trustees, faculty, parents, staff, alumni, students and donors — each with a different perspective and agenda.
Twenty-four hour print, electronic and social media make transparency a full-time job, even when dealing with the most sensitive issues that often require discretion and confidentiality. Full transparency is exhausting and seldom sufficient. In short, it is easier — and safer — to govern.
To reset the table, at least six changes must occur before college and university presidents can assume their role as opinion makers.
* First, boards of trustees must see themselves as operating for the common good and appoint as presidents individuals who are knowledgeable “doers” who can translate ideas into actions that benefit a broader definition of commonwealth. It’s a great supporting argument for continued tax exemption because presidents are clearly serving the public good.
* Second, presidents should separate themselves from issues — appropriately defensive and largely noble — that are already the focus of their national higher education associations. While presidents need to be supportive — arguably, even more so than they are today — these critical issues of student aid, tax, and regulatory relief are benchmark arguments better handled in common through the Washington-based associations.
* Third, presidents must choose and prioritize those broader issues in society where they can have the most impact. These issues should reflect whenever possible current American societal and global concerns and link to the work that a university does. These might include, to name a few, economic development, internationalization of college campuses, global competitiveness, and workforce preparation. And in doing so they should stick to the argument and avoid the politics or risk diluting the value and importance of their message.
* Fourth, university presidents must join in common partnership with foundations, think tanks, and state and federal government whose officials deal with broader issues and from which good ideas already emerge that could be strengthened through broader dialogue with university thought partners. These non-university partners must better involve higher education leadership systematically and systemically to take advantage of the full value of the partnership.
* Fifth, boards of trustees must value and reward the role of the president as opinion maker and thought leader by setting the charge in place during the presidential search, recognizing the value to the university of strategic national leadership, and reviewing and rewarding it accordingly.
* And finally, a president must understand the job held. There is a balance that a president must find between leadership and governance. Sometimes it is better to be thoughtful, insightful and right than it is to be safe and popular. Presidencies are not sinecures but are precious moments in time and need to be nurtured accordingly. Presidencies require courage more than any other trait.
Over the past few years there has been some damage to the image of the university president. Some of it is well deserved as the press critically examines salaries, lapses in presidential judgment, hyper-developed athletic programs, and student behavior. Individuals — and institutions — make mistakes and often serious ones. These must be uncovered and corrected. But once the tarnish is removed enough of the job is still left to make a difference.
Good presidents are out there. They need to be identified, supported, rewarded, and prepared to lead with a broader charge to face concerns beyond the university gates. As we move steadily toward a knowledge-based economy, it has become a national imperative.
Inside Higher Ed, Liam Knox
Piedmont University provost Daniel Silber resigned abruptly this week to protest proposed budget cuts and faculty layoffs, which he called “morally wrong.”
Piedmont University provost Daniel Silber resigned abruptly on Tuesday in protest of proposed budget cuts and faculty layoffs, which the Board of Trustees was set to vote on this week.
In a highly critical email to colleagues announcing his departure, Silber wrote that the proposed budget cuts—which would be the second round this year—were “morally wrong” and that the budget process “failed to be properly inclusive.” He also argued that notifying faculty that they were being let go after the end of the academic year didn’t give them enough time to find new employment for next semester.
“I refuse to be a party to terminations that are carried out in such an unethical manner,” wrote Silber, who also served as senior vice president for academic affairs. “Now that this draconian measure is being implemented, I have no moral choice but to leave the institution.”
Representatives from the university in Demorest, Ga., declined to comment for this article.
Steve Nimmo, dean of the school of arts and sciences, will take over as vice president for academic affairs on an interim basis. Piedmont has yet to name an acting provost.
Silber’s resignation comes just a month after the Piedmont Faculty Senate issued a vote of no confidence in university president James Mellichamp, in part over “mismanagement” of the school’s finances and a lack of budgetary transparency, according to the faculty resolution. The Board of Trustees dismissed the faculty call for Mellichamp’s resignation, expressing “complete confidence” in the president.
Piedmont cut 8 percent of its faculty in February and has yet to give any of its current faculty contracts for next academic year.
‘Very Surprising,’ but ‘Not Unexpected’
Dale Van Cantfort, a communications professor and the chair of Piedmont’s Faculty Senate, said he was “very surprised” by Silber’s resignation. He’d met with the former provost just 48 hours before his resignation and had no idea he was considering leaving.
But while the abrupt nature of the resignation took him aback, Cantfort said he agreed with many of the frustrations Silber voiced in his email.
After a meeting to discuss the initial round of budget cuts in February, Cantfort said, administrators promised there would be no more faculty reductions. But in April, the Board of Trustees rejected the budget that Mellichamp submitted for the coming academic year. Mellichamp announced that further cuts would have to be made—including 15 additional faculty positions.
“We are approximately two months away from the fall semester,” he said. “Telling a longtime faculty member, ‘You don’t have a job’ and leaving them with no hope of finding one for next year because everybody has already filled their positions, I think that is not morally defensible.”
Cantfort said that through negotiations with senior administrators, he and other faculty members managed to reduce the number of positions to be cut in the proposed budget submitted to the board Thursday from 15 to four. The board has not yet voted on that budget.
Brian Mitchell, a former president of Bucknell University and co-founder of Academic Innovators, a higher education solutions company, said that while provosts often part ways with their institutions over disagreements, the suddenness of Silber’s departure, as well as the grievance-filled email that accompanied it, is extremely rare—and could do even more damage to the institution.
“If you’re trying to protect the institution, you need to ask, what impact does this have, for example, on deposits or enrollment?” Mitchell said. “If I were faculty, I would certainly applaud it, but within the broader context of the world in which we live, it probably didn’t help Piedmont at all to be presented in this way.”
‘Mismanagement’ and Poor Communication
In an email to faculty and staff on June 8, Mellichamp pushed back on the picture Silber painted in his resignation email, pinning the university’s budget shortfall on external circumstances.
“Our budget has been impacted by the pandemic, declines in graduate enrollment, volatility in the stock market, and overall economic uncertainty weighing on prospective students and their families,” he wrote. “Under these conditions, we have had to make difficult decisions as we chart the institution’s path through the pandemic and beyond.”
But Cantfort said Mellichamp’s justifications are only a small part of the story behind Piedmont’s financial troubles, which he said stem from mismanagement by administrators and the board.
“This is not because of the pandemic,” Cantfort said. “The finances of the school have not been handled properly for the past three years. Because of that, we find ourselves in a difficult financial situation, and the administration wants to balance that budget by eliminating faculty positions.”
In their no-confidence resolution, the Piedmont faculty cite unforced budgetary errors and expanded “real estate ventures” as reasons for the budget shortfall.
According to the resolution, Mellichamp and other senior administration knew about the university’s “dire financial situation” for many months before faculty were made aware. Cantfort said this lack of communication is part of the problem that led to both the no-confidence vote and Silber’s resignation, and that the continued uncertainty has led remaining faculty members to consider looking for other work pre-emptively.
“I’ve got a number of faculty members who tell me they are actively searching, because they don’t want to be left in the lurch,” Cantfort said. “It is not good news for the university that we’re in this situation … Every day that this drags on there’s the potential we lose good faculty members.”
Mitchell said the saga at Piedmont—from the initial budget cuts to the vote of no confidence to Silber’s resignation—points to a failure of communication among the Board of Trustees, the senior administration and the faculty.
“The real story here is about shared governance,” Mitchell said. “For a college or university to succeed, there has to be a synergy among the three groups, there has to be transparency and there has to be a willingness to engage in a dialogue that doesn’t turn public and ugly. And it looks like Piedmont failed on all those counts.”
Barbara Gitenstein, senior vice president of the Association of Governing Boards and a former president of the College of New Jersey, said that as the liaison between the Board of Trustees and the university’s internal constituents, senior administrators are responsible for informing stakeholders about financial issues early and having conversations with those whom budget cuts would affect.
“In any situation where you have to share unhappy news, earlier and more open conversations are always better and lead to healthier results,” she said.
‘Tough Times’ Ahead
In his resignation email, Silber offered a prediction for Piedmont’s future. He did not mince words.
“My hope is that there will be a last-minute change to change course, but, regardless, Piedmont University is in for some very tough times,” he wrote.
Cantfort is a little more optimistic, but he says major changes are necessary to make sure Piedmont’s business and educational models are sustainable.
“Piedmont University is a very solid university with instruction and education as our principal mission,” he said. “I believe it will survive this … but we feel changes still need to be made in order for Piedmont to build a better university.”
Mitchell said that as institutions face growing financial hurdles, tensions are likely to increase between faculty and administrators, and provosts will only face more pressure serving as liaison between the two parties. In that case, he said, the sudden nature of Silber’s departure, while uncommon now, may not be for long.
“The tuition revenue model upon which all less well-endowed schools depend is teetering right now, on the brink of collapse,” Mitchell said. “We’re likely to see increased pressure on higher education leadership, and it’s entirely possible that we’ll see more examples of this down the road.”
Student Housing Matters, Alton Irwin
Listen to the podcast episode here.
Higher education has evolved drastically over the last century. These unprecedented times have put the strategic leaders of colleges and universities inside a whirlwind of financial, demographic, and social challenges.
On today’s episode of Student Housing Matters, guest host Alton Irwin sits down with Richard Gaumer and the authors of the new book Leadership Matters: Confronting the Hard Choices Facing Higher Education, W. Joseph King and Brian C. Mitchell. They discuss the importance of accepting strong leadership in order to modernize practice, monetize assets, and focus on core educational strategies.
Dr. Brian C. Mitchell previously served as President and first CEO of Bucknell University and is a past chair of many other colleges, universities, and athletic conferences. Dr. W. Joseph King served as the President of Lyon College and Executive Director of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education.
Also joining us on the show today is Richard Gaumer, a highly regarded and distinguished professional whose career is dedicated to internal corporate management and assisting struggling institutions in becoming stronger and more sustainable.
King, Mitchell, and Gaumer are all principals of Academic Innovators, an organization offering solutions to the people, programs, governance, and facilities challenges facing higher education. In addition to Leadership Matters, King and Mitchell also co-authored How to Run a College.
Recommendations from the new book Leadership Matters: Confronting the Hard Choices Facing Higher Education
Higher education struggles, such as higher sticker prices, tuition discounting, and loss of consumer confidence
The difference between strategy and strategic planning
How higher education institutions can make a difference in the communities they reside in
Capabilities and inefficiencies of shared governance in relation to academic endeavors and economic enterprises
What colleges and universities need to do to adapt and thrive in the modern age
King, Mitchell and Gaumer’s hope for the future of higher education
Leadership Matters by W. Joseph King and Brian C. Mitchell
How to Run a College by W. Joseph King and Brian C. Mitchell
Inside Higher Ed, Susan H. Greenberg and Emma Whitford
The authors of a new book on leading higher ed institutions in tough times discuss the trouble with trustees, the challenges of being a provost and why college presidents are like midsize-city mayors.
In their new book, Leadership Matters: Confronting the Hard Choices Facing Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press), former college presidents W. Joseph King and Brian C. Mitchell draw on their experience to argue that now more than ever, institutions of higher learning require strategic, forward-thinking leaders to guide them through this period of financial, demographic and social upheaval. Mitchell is a past president of Bucknell University and Washington & Jefferson College. King resigned from Lyon College last year. They spoke with Inside Higher Ed via Zoom. Excerpts from their conversation follow, edited for length and clarity.
Q: The central question of your book is, how do colleges and universities thrive in this rapidly changing world, where what has worked in the past maybe no longer does? In a nutshell, what is your answer?
Joey King: I think the nutshell answer is making shared governance work. The reality of strategic leadership in a shared governance model is you can have the most gifted administration, the most gifted president, in the community. But that doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to make progress if your board and your faculty aren’t dedicated to that process.
Brian Mitchell: Shared governance is something that is unique and idiosyncratic to American higher education. Each of the three legs of the stool—the faculty, the administration and the trustees—have to understand their role, which requires a certain amount of focus. The faculty are the keepers of the flame, the ones who have the greatest responsibility to maintain the sort of bedrock core of academic programming and work. It’s a critical role. The administration … can be brilliant, but if, in fact, you do not have the tools at your disposal, you don’t have the focus and clearly the parameters set in place for understanding what your role is, you’re sort of doomed before you start. The weakest link in shared governance, we think, is the trustee. Trustees really have three responsibilities and only three responsibilities: they’re the stewards of the institution. They have a right and a responsibility to hire, retain, nurture, replace and fire, if necessary, the president. And the third role they have is to approve the budget. If they go in other areas, if what they do is not defined by the strategy that they themselves should work to set, then they’re failing.
King: A major problem with trustees is they don’t understand the operational delineation; they don’t understand their roles as fiduciaries. They undercut leadership; they create angst for the faculty because they make curricular suggestions that really aren’t their purview. And they can do all sorts of other things that are not good. So I think really understanding the true role of trusteeship is something that most institutions don’t do a good job of educating trustees up-front.
Q: Trustees may be the weakest link, but you write that the most challenging role of the three is the provost. Why is that?
Mitchell: The provost is the intermediary between faculty and administrations. They’re the advocates for the faculty and also the people who will have to ration the resources. And that is a very, very difficult and challenging role when what goes on inside the gates is largely determined by faculty and staff reaction to whatever the issue is.
King: I think that most provosts who do their job well understand that they may have to do things that, on the one hand, may make it difficult to return to the faculty; on the other hand, they may need to leave the institution. It just depends on the circumstance. But these jobs are service jobs. The best leaders I know in higher ed make pretty much all their decisions based on their service to the mission.
Q: It makes being a provost sound like a very undesirable job. Why does anyone ever agree to become one?
King: (Laughs) Well, I sure never wanted to be.
Mitchell: I think it can be hugely energizing. You’re taking assistant professors and moving them—it’s a little bit like a craft guild. You’re moving them from apprentice to journeyman to master craftsmen and -women. And so you really get the opportunity to nurture the profession—not only the profession as a whole, but the profession for the individuals who are professing it, if you will. It’s also a place where innovation, which is the sort of implementation of good ideas within the existing system, can occur. Provosts do that. And then the other thing, they make sure that the health of the academic enterprise is good, and that the bedrock on which it’s founded is solid. And if you’re interested in policy, particularly academic policy, that can be tremendously rewarding.
Q: Are the challenges that higher ed leaders face today—a surge of COVID cases, campus shootings, student suicides, racial unrest—significantly more difficult than what leaders have had to deal with in the past? And if so, what kind of leadership do we need today compared to in the past?
King: Well, Brian and I are pretty clear in our belief that it’s not different than the past. I think it’s helpful to higher ed leadership to understand that this may be a third inflection point, but it’s not an absolutely extraordinary time. When the first inflection point that we talk about happened, you’d lost 750,000 mostly men in the Civil War. So you basically lost an entire generation of college-going students; you had massive yellow fever outbreaks, you had an incredible supply chain meltdown. I mean, some of these things are sounding pretty familiar, aren’t they?
The second inflection point is, of course, the Great Depression. After the crash in ’29, you had institutions as wealthy as Northwestern and the University of Chicago really seriously in merger negotiations. They did not think they’d be able to survive as independent institutions. And probably, if the New Deal hadn’t occurred, they would have merged. And if World War II had not happened, it’s hard to know how many colleges would have closed and merged in the Great Depression. As you can tell by the timing of these events, 50 to 80 years apart, none of the leaders who led through the last inflection are available to higher ed today.
The other thing that we found is that leaders are born during those inflection crises. And I think that’s what’s happening right now. And I also think that’s why there’s so much turnover, and so much leadership change: because institutions are coming to terms with the magnitude of the problems and the magnitude of the change required.
Mitchell: In the book, we suggest that there are three types of leaders that are—as Joey said—born of the environment in which they work. The first is the presider president, the ceremonial mayor; they speak on issues of sex, drugs and rock and roll and also serve as the pater familias of the community. The second is the bull in the china shop. They make great dramatic changes, but they wear their welcome out. The third, which is the group that we think is the group that will likely survive, the group that Joey and I like to think we’re a part of, is the strategist. They sort of—what is the comment attributed to [Wayne] Gretzky?—play to where the puck is going to be. And we think that given the amount of changes that are produced right now, the strategist is best suited to pull the groups that focus on governance together and lay out a plan, if you will, for or how these institutions become sustainable over the mid and the long term.
Q: Institutions are installing interim leaders for longer than they used to—sometimes one to two years, which is pretty significant for a university. Do you see interim presidents as falling into one of those three categories? Or are they something else entirely?
King: I see them as very different. I think longer-term interims can be broken into two categories: one, they are there to calm things down—I guess they are there to be presiders. They’re filling in and letting the institution get back to an equilibrium. Alternatively, there’s really the opposite, which is [that they’re there] to make very difficult changes that you probably couldn’t hire anyone to make … you’re looking for somebody to come in and make changes that are going to effectively end their presidency. So I guess maybe they could be broken down into presiders and change agents. But since they don’t stay long enough to execute a strategy, that would really never happen. The key to both is they’re on their way out one way or another.
Q: You write about empathy being an important quality in a president, and I assume that goes across the board for all three types. Could you talk about what that looks like in a president, how it’s manifest and why it is so important?
Mitchell: Empathy is when the new book comes out from a faculty member and you do your best to get it read and you tell them what you thought of it. Empathy is when somebody’s mother dies and you take a moment to put the call in to let them know that you know and that you wish they and their family the best … The college president isn’t a business leader; it’s more like a midsize-city mayor. It’s somebody who has a ceremonial title, who operates like a 19th-century political ward boss, rationing favors and demonstrating in fact that you are part of the community while trying to manage a medieval craft guild.
King: And it’s also empathy for students. We had two student deaths in 90 days [when I was president] at Lyon. So we had these really emotional memorial services, in which the president largely was the main speaker, certainly the chaplain as well. That’s not just a show. In a small community that lives in a residential environment, effectively surrounded by hedges and gates, it’s a really personal experience. Empathy is a job requirement.
Q: You also talk about the importance of town-gown relations, and of the president’s role in nurturing those. You’ve both been presidents of small rural colleges and had your fair share of rocky relations.
King: You could say that.
Mitchell: (Laughter) Joey should go first here.
Q: How did your experience at Lyon inform your thinking about leadership? [King resigned in August 2021 after he was quoted describing Lyon and another college where he worked as “bubbles of inclusion and diversity surrounded by a sea of angry, disenfranchised populations and a large white-supremacist population.”]
King: I’ll have to be a little hyperbolic, just because I don’t want to get into the details. But I think particularly now, in this heightened political climate where everything is so polarized, every action is considered a political act: Is [Supreme Court Justice Neil] Gorsuch wearing a mask, you know? I think that’s really changed the way this works. You know, there has always been a degree of this. There’s always this very substantial difference between the life of the college and the life of the town or city that it’s in. A lot of times, I’d be asked about how “the business” was going, so to speak, by local business leaders, and it’s hard to describe to them exactly … At one point, when they asked me, I said something like, “You know, there are substantial differences in the way we work as opposed to a normal business.” And one of them challenged me. And I said, “Well, I’m betting that you don’t often put on colorful robes and march around to bagpipe music at your company. Do you do that every few weeks? Because we do.” I think it’s hard in almost any community that’s not familiar with the ins and outs of academe to understand the differences, and to understand that you’re maintaining these residential communities where literally parents have handed over their children to you. You have an absolute responsibility.
Mitchell: When I arrived at Washington & Jefferson, the first meeting I went to was with the county commissioners … and for 48 minutes, they just simply screamed at me. There’s just no other way to put it. When it was over, it seemed that there were a couple of things that I needed to learn quickly. The first is that there are social and cultural conditions that really impact the relationship between colleges, universities and the broader environment beyond the college gates. Second, good strategy should include some definition of how the college is going to move forward in conjunction with the world in which it lives. And then the third thing that I learned is that it’s very, very important to recognize that colleges and universities are academic enterprises and economic engines. So although you can deal with the cultural and social conditions that cause the screaming, you’d also better look at the world around you to understand what role you play in that community. And often in rural areas, except for maybe the school districts or the local hospital, you may be the biggest thing in town, and you want to be careful not to pull your weight around, but to understand what that means.
Q: But even at a small rural college, you’re almost always more progressive, more liberal, more diverse than the surrounding community. So how do you navigate that tension?
King: That’s just a fact of rural America. And I think every college and university in rural America deals with that—including big institutions, like Penn State. It’s just the reality that many local citizens think you’re essentially a communist breeding ground of absolutely anti-American values. This is the tension that we’re under right now, but it’s not entirely unique to this time. It’s always been there … When you’re in the truth business, you can’t be flexible on the truth. And so, in this era of alternative facts and fake news, I think you’re going to get more and more into situations where presidents and faculty and, essentially, rural colleges run up against this. They can either accommodate the political tensions that are inherent in the situation, or they can take a stronger stance. The key, as Brian pointed out, is understanding the motivations underlying it and trying to be as good partner as you can be, while maintaining your faith and fidelity to what the mission of the institution is.
Q: You write that when it comes to transparency on campus, it’s almost impossible to have too much. And I’m wondering, what are the limits of transparency? For instance, what’s your view on the Michigan Board of Regents releasing [fired president] Mark Schlissel’s emails?
King: Our typical view is that protected human resource records, FERPA kind of records, the things that we would normally hold as confidential as an institution, shouldn’t be made public. With regard to the Michigan example, it’s a public institution … I’m sure that when you sign on at the University of Michigan, it points out that it’s the state system and that they can own and control everything. And, yes, I’m sure they had the legal right to do it. But I think that it is communication that, on a private campus, I doubt would ever be shared, even though it might be an argument for transparency.
Mitchell: My reaction to that is that you carry transparency as far as you possibly can, within the bounds of the law and common sense. And then you listen to your legal adviser very carefully. There must have been some reason at Michigan that we don’t understand that caused them to release it. I hope there was, and I hope it was based in something that their legal office has told them. But I can say that [even] if you are fully transparent, there will be times when you’re still not perceived as transparent enough.
At the same time, for example, the board meets three or four times a year, so publish a statement that tells everybody exactly what happened at the board meeting; then there are no surprises. There’s no reason not to be fully transparent, unless it was an executive session and something occurred and people are going to have to understand that. But it’s when you don’t take that extra step, when you don’t say, “Look, there’s shared governance here and the faculty and the administrators and staff, you need to know what happened, here’s what happened …”
Q: When we cover campuses, there’s a lot of frustration from students about how inaccessible the trustees are to them. Do you see the firewall between them and students that’s become sort of systematized as valuable? If so, why? And then do you think that trustees should be doing more to be active members of the college community and be in touch with students more often?
King: I think you should have a structure that puts students and trustees together regularly. Generally, the way that normally works best is that at each board meeting, there’s either a reception or a lunch where students can opt in to spending time with the trustees. And you have to be very clear with the trustees that they have a very substantial role to play—they need to attend, they need to listen and they need to listen a lot more than they speak. But I think you also have to have a pretty deliberate discussion with the students, saying, “Look, here’s what trustees do: they approve institutional changes of a certain magnitude, they hire and fire the president, and they approve the budget. So if you’re talking to them about anything else, it’s not in their purview to make those changes. You should be talking to the administration or the faculty.”
Mitchell: You’ve got to find a way to incorporate and integrate trustees into the life of the university or the college, there’s no question about it. You’ve got to provide a cultural setting and a social setting, and also you have to bring the best of what the students are doing before the trustees. We always brought student performances, events, student discussions, as part of a trustee weekend, so they’d understand and begin to appreciate what students are thinking and feeling and writing about and so on. I don’t favor trustees walking around campus saying, “Tell me what you know, tell me what you think,” because it’s unfocused.
King: I’ve also heard similar complaints from alumni on those exact same lines: “Why don’t we have access to the trustees, or even the administration? Why can’t we voice our concerns?” And the interesting thing about alumni is, it’s a large, very diverse group of people who have four-year windows on an institution that may span 60 to 80 years. And so almost none of them know the institution as it exists at the time that they’re making the comment.
Inside Higher Ed, Emma Whitford
Mark Rosenberg’s resignation from Florida International is the second high-profile presidential departure this month. Boards appear to be taking evidence of inappropriate behavior more seriously, experts say.
Days after the University of Michigan Board of Regents very publicly fired Dr. Mark Schlissel for engaging in an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate via email, Mark Rosenberg resigned as president of Florida International University.
Rosenberg announced his resignation Friday, effective immediately, citing his own health concerns and the deteriorating health of his wife, Rosalie. Two days later, Rosenberg released another statement, writing that he had “caused discomfort for a valued colleague” and, as a result, stepped down.
“I unintentionally created emotional (not physical) entanglement,” Rosenberg wrote in the statement Sunday. “I have apologized. I apologize to you. I take full responsibility and regret my actions.”
Susan Resneck Pierce, a higher education consultant and president emerita of the University of Puget Sound, suspects that Rosenberg’s resignation may have been influenced by Schlissel’s public shaming. The Michigan president was fired after the Board of Regents learned he was having an affair with a subordinate colleague and published 118 pages of messages between them, sent using his university email account.
“The abundance of publicity about and of details surrounding Schlissel’s being let go may have influenced Rosenberg to be proactive,” Pierce wrote in an email.
Rosenberg, who had served as president of Florida International for 13 years, said he disclosed information about the “entanglement” through proper channels. After talking with Dean Colson, the chair of the Board of Trustees, he decided to resign.
Colson also elaborated Sunday on the board’s short response to Rosenberg’s initial resignation announcement.
Rosenberg’s statement “provides insight into why the Board did not believe Friday was the appropriate time to celebrate the many accomplishments of FIU” during Rosenberg’s tenure, Colson wrote. “We are deeply saddened and disappointed by the events requiring his resignation.”
Information about which colleague Rosenberg was referring to, as well as the nature of their communications, has not been disclosed. A spokesperson for Florida International declined to comment on Rosenberg’s resignation and pointed Inside Higher Ed to his Sunday statement.
The New York Times reported Sunday that an investigation into Rosenberg’s misconduct began in mid-December after a female employee told a colleague about the former president’s behavior. The woman reportedly provided text messages between herself and Rosenberg to investigators last week, just before Rosenberg resigned.
While the circumstances are different, Rosenberg’s and Schlissel’s departures both illustrate how much more seriously boards are taking inappropriate behavior, experts say.
“In the atmosphere we’re in now, post–Me Too movement, boards are just much more vigilant,” said Kevin Reilly, president emeritus and regent professor at the University of Wisconsin system. “I think they have to act—and act quickly and decisively—in cases of sexual harassment.”
Before the Me Too movement—which brought about a deeper understanding of sexual misconduct and harassment—presidents and boards may have been more likely to ride out an investigation before deciding the fate of the president. Now, if a president knows they’ve acted inappropriately or violated college policy, they may step down before the issue is aired publicly.
“Often enough, people will have the benefit of the institution and their colleagues and everybody in mind when they think about this,” Reilly said. “They know they made a mistake. I think a lot of people would feel like, ‘Well, all right, I just gotta move on now and let the institution move on beyond me.’”
They may also step down to slow or stop an investigation into their behavior, said Ann Olivarius, a Title IX lawyer who represents individuals who have been harassed. (This paragraph has been updated to clarify Olivarius’s title.)
“Sometimes you avoid putting bad news on record” by stepping down before an investigation is complete, Olivarius said.
Olivarius also noted that misconduct allegations and inappropriate behavior can erode the “moral leadership” of a college president. Brian Mitchell, a former president of Bucknell University and co-author of Leadership Matters, echoed her thoughts.
“These are public jobs,” Mitchell said. “People may make mistakes, but they’re not just a job—they are a job that carries with it a public trust.”
In addition to saving face, there are other reasons why a president might choose to resign—or not—before an investigation into their behavior. The financial agreements tied to their departure, for example, may influence how willing they are to step down. Age may also play a role.
“If you were a younger president or chancellor and you at least believe the facts were in dispute—that people were claiming things about you that were unfair, unjust or didn’t happen—you might be much more likely to go through the process” of an investigation, Reilly said.
Olivarius offered one possible solution for curbing sexual misconduct and inappropriate behavior by higher education officials: fines.
“You start to come for people’s pocketbooks, and all of a sudden maybe having sex is not quite as important,” Olivarius said. “They should have to be charged monetary payments for misconduct or for taking advantage of their power in their situation.”
Youtube, Bryan Alexander
Watch the full Youtube video “On Strategic Leadership” here.
What does strategic leadership mean for higher education now?
This week the Forum hosts two veteran leaders and scholars. W. Joseph King and Brian C. Mitchell have served as academic presidents, vice presidents, directors, and more. They have just published Leadership Matters: Confronting the Hard Choices Facing Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press). https://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/title…
The Future Trends Forum is a weekly discussion event created and hosted by Bryan Alexander. Since 2016 we have addressed the most powerful forces of change in academia. Each week, this video chat brings together practitioners in the field to share their most recent work and experience in education and technology. The intent of the Forum: to advance the discussion around the pressing issues at the crossroads of education and technology. http://forum.futureofeducation.us/ https://bryanalexander.org
LinkedIn, Brian C. Mitchell
American higher education is facing an extraordinarily difficult academic year as the economic crisis sparked by the global pandemic calls into question how colleges and universities operate. The pressure will put many residential liberal arts college in deep distress from which a significant number will not recover.
Facing an existential crisis, governing boards of trustees should ask whether they have the right leadership to weather these challenges. Does their current leadership have the right mix of strategy, operational knowledge, and financial expertise to shepherd the college or university through this crisis?
If the answer is no (or their president has recently resigned or retired), they should be taking immediate action to secure the leadership that can save them.
Time, tradition, precedent not on colleges’ side
Higher education must quickly adapt to the remarkably different environment caused by the pandemic. One immediate change must be in how they handle the elongated presidential search process. Who and how they choose may be the most important decisions that boards can make in the near future. Time, tradition, and precedent are no longer on their side.
The tradition-driven, consensus-building presidential search process — usually undertaken over 12 to 15 months and involving in-person stakeholder consultation and interviews — no longer serves colleges and universities that cry out for new vision and strategy to adapt and survive as their financial and enrollment needs collapse around them.
This article is a synopsis of “The Responsibility of Choosing a College President in Times of Crisis,” written by Brian C. Mitchell and published in the July-August 2020 issue of Trusteeship, the magazine of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. The article is available to subscribers on the AGB website. If you’d like a copy, please send me a LinkedIn message or email.