The Need to Lead

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.

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.

Topics Covered 

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.”

YoutubeBryan 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).… 

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.

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

Inside Higher Ed, Brian C. Mitchell and Richard K. Gaumer

Colleges must immediately develop flexible financial planning that accounts for what happens in the spring and what might occur in the fall, write Brian C. Mitchell and Richard K. Gaumer.


As the pandemic deepens, higher education has been fairly uniform in its response. Most colleges and universities have closed. Where they can, many of those institutions have pledged to convert to an online platform to complete the semester’s remaining coursework.

The solutions adopted make good sense to most observers. But clearly no one, including America’s college leadership, prepared fully for what the country is likely to face. In the stimulus package, higher education leaders requested $50 billion in federal relief but will receive only $14 billion, far short of the support needed. Many of them will confront a severe cash-flow crunch that may cause some colleges to collapse. With most students gone, now is the time to look at the damage done, plan for what to do and anticipate ways in which the crisis can be managed effectively.

First, the coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the fragility of the tuition-driven revenue model at most institutions. Many higher education leaders have pledged to prorate the second semester’s room and board fees for their students. In Boston, for example, local colleges and universities might refund up to $670 million in unused room and board. There are, of course, numerous ways to do so.

But brick-and-mortar institutions are highly labor and land intensive. At some point, the bills must be paid. Using room and board credits applied to the fall semester, insurance triggers that prompt reimbursements and refunds from food service contracts, as well as shifting money from other accounts or the unrestricted portion of the endowment, may work for many of them. But the effects on the overall financial picture will be serious and even dire.

Colleges must immediately develop flexible financial planning that accounts for what happens in the spring and what might occur in the fall. If the fall semester is delayed or canceled, the implication will move beyond the immediate financial bottom line to a question of institutional sustainability. Should students no longer fill available seats over the next six to 12 months, mergers, sales, closures and acquisitions will increase as part of a general shakeout across American higher education.

One internal political solution is to look at where efficiencies and economies of scale can be created that do not diminish the rationing pie jealously guarded by campuses invested in the status quo. There may be ways to adjust the bottom line. One example is, for instance, to determine whether prescription drug benefits might be lowered for self-insured colleges and universities and those that participate in larger self-insurance pools. The savings produced, which can start almost immediately, will cover some of the unanticipated shortfalls and provide discretionary money to undertake needed short-term steps, like online programming.

To put a Band-Aid on the immediate crisis, many institutions have pledged to convert to an online platform to finish this semester’s instruction. Shifting to online programming presents obstacles. First, many colleges do not support a robust platform that can be adapted to scale. Second, there are unspecified additional costs in training, technology upgrades, facilities, needed bandwidth and faculty and support personnel. Third, not all faculty may be willing to participate in online programming. Additional numbers of them are untrained. And will this cobbled-together online format produce a high-quality education for students?

For many institutions, it may be far better to work out a blended arrangement with groups like Coursera for Campus, which enable any college or university to offer existing courses and certificates to their students. Coursera recently announced that they are making Coursera for Campus available at no charge through July 31 to any college or university impacted by the coronavirus. Other providers, like Podium Education and the Foundry College, might also provide some adaptable assistance. In the post-coronavirus world, one outcome for colleges to consider is whether closer relationships with ed-tech providers might actually reinvigorate their existing curriculum while simultaneously preserving it. This approach ties the strength of traditional pedagogy to the needs of the 21st-century workforce.

This is also an opportunity for colleges to evaluate and improve campus services. Students and their families need assurance that critical services affected by the coronavirus will be provided. All services must be seamless, readily available and meet the needs that are challenged by the virus. TimelyMD, a telehealth company focused on transforming health care in higher education, is a good example of how colleges can improve existing campus services during the coronavirus crisis. It provides 24-hour access to telemedicine and counseling services that can support initiatives like social (physical) distancing. Additionally, counseling services delivered via telehealth improve access to mental health support for students facing increased anxiety and stress. These types of services enable colleges to have a clear value proposition for students returning to their campuses. Students might otherwise consider transferring closer to home or completing their education online.

And that’s the point for colleges and universities in the midst of an unprecedented disruption. This can either be a time to hunker down and fix the finances — at least temporarily, with financial parlor tricks — or an opportunity to understand how it can be used to plan for a sustainable future. If the disruption is an opportunity to become more adaptable, we may find a silver lining amid the panic and chaos of the moment.

Inside Higher Ed, Emma Whitford

For colleges that are already financially strapped, issuing room and board refunds “could be disastrous.”


Students across the country are making hurried plans to move out of their dorm rooms as the number of campus closures over coronavirus concerns skyrocketed past 200 Thursday.

Away from their dorms and dining halls, many students and parents are wondering if and when they’ll be refunded room and board fees.

But for colleges relying on such fees — called auxiliary fees — to support their operating revenue, refunds could be devastating.

“Every residential college and university in America relies on that auxiliary revenue stream. It is baked into the budget,” W. Joseph King, president of Lyon College and co-author of How to Run a College, said in an email. “Significant refunds will cause real problems at many institutions. It will just be worse for those with tighter or deficit budgets.”

Auxiliary services are becoming an increasingly important part of colleges’ operating revenue, especially for private, four-year institutions.

“Most colleges run their own housing. It is usually their biggest source of auxiliary revenue,” King wrote. “Assuming the residence hall is paid for, the net auxiliary revenue can be substantial. Even if it is financed, there is usually a positive revenue stream.”

Smith College, a women’s liberal arts college in Northampton, Mass., with approximately 2,400 students, is requiring all students to move out of on-campus housing by March 20. Smith said it will offer prorated room and board refunds. In fiscal year 2018, Smith collected $40.4 million in residence and dining fees — about 16.5 percent of its total operating revenue. (This paragraph has been updated to include the correct date by which Smith students must move out of on-campus housing.)

Amherst College also announced Tuesday it would refund room and board fees for students who left campus. Room and board revenue made up nearly 9 percent of Amherst’s operating revenue in fiscal 2018.

“Refunds are a sticky business since they are definitely not in the budget. Any significant refunding will create a budget hole,” King said. “It just depends on how it is prorated. Most institutions have policies about refunds (or no refunds) if a student withdraws. Few (if any) have closure policies.”

Private universities are also collecting less net revenue per student from tuition and fees than they used to, according to Craig Goebel, principal at Art & Science Group, a higher education consulting and research firm.

“There’s much steeper discounting going on at private colleges and universities,” he said, noting that the average discount rate for private institutions is 50 percent. If the college is already under financial stress, “this could be disastrous,” Goebel said.

On top of that, added financial stress could impact a college’s credit ratings. A lower credit rating could make it more difficult for colleges to borrow money in the future.

“For some of the schools that have weaker resources or are more pressured, this could create a credit challenge,” said Jessica Wood, a senior director at S&P Global Ratings.

It’s unlikely that colleges will receive insurance payouts for refund-related revenue hits.

“Because colleges are sending students home as a preventative measure, not because of an event that triggers coverage under their property or business interruption policy, these refund claims will likely not be covered,” Bret Murray, who leads higher education strategy at Risk Strategies Company, a national insurance brokerage and risk management firm, said in an email Thursday. “With that said, colleges should still put carriers on notice and keep track of all financial impacts related to COVID-19.”

Colleges with substantial endowments or other significant sources of income, like federal and state grant money or land leases, will not be cut as deeply by refund requests.

Harvard University, one of the first colleges to explicitly require students to leave campus, will offer prorated room and board refunds. Board and lodging fees made up less than 4 percent of Harvard’s operating revenue in fiscal 2018, far surpassed by federal grants, gifts for current use and returns on endowment made available for operations.

A wealth gap may be emerging between colleges that choose to close or cancel in-person classes and those that, so far, will remain open. In Pennsylvania, West Chester University — with an endowment of $40 million — decided to end face-to-face instruction Wednesday, while Mansfield University of Pennsylvania — with a $1 million endowment — did not.

That said, Wood doesn’t believe colleges are making any decisions about closures and remote learning with finances at front of mind.

“While financial considerations are always important, I do think … their decisions are first and foremost being made around their communities’, students’, staff and faculties’ safety,” she said.

Two-year colleges are somewhat shielded from this particular revenue hit. According to the College Board’s 2019 trends in college pricing report, in 2015-16, 96 percent of full-time undergraduate students at public two-year colleges lived off campus or with their parents.

Still, today most colleges are scrambling to scale up their online learning resources and put precautionary plans in place. Few have disclosed whether they will offer room and board refunds to students who leave campus.​

Room and board is a sizable chunk of what students pay each semester, and the fees are often excluded from scholarship calculations. The College Board report states that students at a public four-year universities paying in-state tuition spend on average 43 percent of their budgets on room and board fees. For out-of-state students, room and board makes up 27 percent of budgets, and for students at private four-year colleges, 24 percent of budgets are room and board fees.

Requests for room and board rebates aren’t the only way colleges could lose money as a result of the coronavirus. Many have canceled admitted student days and student tours, and closing campus could affect enrollments in the fall. Institutions that rely heavily on endowment payouts could see them dip in a falling market.

The virus will “certainly roil the admission market” just as student deposits and commitments are due, said Brian Mitchell, King’s co-author on How to Run a College and the founder of Brian Mitchell & Associates, a higher education consulting firm, in an email.

“Effectively, the crisis has the potential to create a double whammy — unexpected [costs] and highly unpredictable future revenue at tuition-driven institutions,” he said.​


University Business, Karen Kroll


State-of-the-art research facilities, residence halls featuring a range of amenities, and other new campus buildings play a key role in wooing students and faculty to an institution. In fact, capital investments by colleges and universities are at an 11-year high, according to research from Sightlines, a Gordian company and provider of facilities intelligence in higher education.

At the same time, state appropriations for higher ed continue to be unstable, and many private institutions struggle to attract students, particularly those who can pay full tuition.

The leadership challenge: Find a way to balance the need for top-notch facilities without overspending. Here are five financing options colleges are turning to for capital projects.


1. Federal programs

While some federal opportunities exist, so do specific eligibility requirements.

Small, rural colleges, for example, may be able to access financing through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Community Facilities Direct Loan & Grant Program, which provides long-term, low-cost loans and limited grant funds for the construction of libraries, athletic centers and other facilities, says Bruce Lammers, administrator of USDA’s Rural Housing Service. It’s available to institutions in communities with populations of up to about 20,000 people.

The program’s current portfolio includes about $1.8 billion in the education sector, across 201 college-related facilities, Lammers says. To be eligible, an institution must be unable to obtain credit elsewhere and must demonstrate significant community financial support.

While some have questioned whether the USDA is making viable loans—after all, the program is available when commercial financing isn’t—Lammers notes that the current delinquency rate is under 2%.

The Department of Education offers a program geared to historically black colleges and universities. It provides low-cost capital through federal loan guarantees on qualified bonds for infrastructure improvements. The total amount of loans and accrued interest is currently capped at $1.1 billion, although Congress can raise that.


2. State-issued bonds and grants

Some state agencies help schools and other nonprofits borrow through state-legislated bonds. For instance, DASNY, the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York, provides a Dormitory Facilities Program, which issues low-cost, tax-exempt bonds supported by student residence hall fees. It also offers equipment leasing and other services.

“It’s a credit enhancement,” says Jason Holsclaw, senior vice president with Stephens Inc., a financial services firm that advises higher ed institutions on capital investments. If a college runs into financial challenges, most investors assume the state will step in. The state’s guarantee may help lower the cost of financing.

Similarly, the Maryland Community College Construction Grant Program helps counties acquire property and design, construct and renovate public and regional community college facilities.


3. Bond issues

Over the past decade or so, some colleges and universities have used bank direct placements, in which bonds are sold directly to a single bondholder, such as a bank. By dealing with one financial institution, rather than a syndicate of lenders, a borrower may gain greater flexibility when it comes to loan covenants, Holsclaw says. However, he cautions, all deals are different.

Another type of bond that’s attracted some interest is the century bond. As its name implies, this bond matures in 100 years. In August 2019, Penn State issued a $300 million century bond at a yield of 3.61%. The proceeds will fund a new research building and renovations to existing infrastructure, according to the university.
Typically, large and well-known institutions that can turn to their state overseers if they run into financial trouble are best able to take advantage of century bonds. “As an investor, you’re betting the university will be there 100 years from now,” Holsclaw says.


4. Public-private partnerships

A public-private partnership (P3)—in which a public institution and a private company collaborate to finance, build and operate projects—tends to be popular for campus housing projects, says Fred Pierce, president and CEO of Pierce Education Properties, an owner of student housing. P3s allow a university to preserve its debt capacity for projects deemed core to its mission, such as building a research facility.

The University of California, Merced is using a P3 to partially finance the Merced 2020 campus expansion. The project will add more than 1 million square feet of academic, research and other buildings and infrastructure. Of the $1.3 billion project total, about $600 million will come from the University of California system, through general revenue and housing bonds; $590.35 million from the developer, Plenary Properties Merced; and $148.13 million from campus funds.

Historically, the UC system would have provided financing through general obligation and lease revenue bonds, says Nathan Brostrom, interim chancellor of UC Merced. However, the system hasn’t issued a general obligation bond since 2006—about a year after the Merced campus officially opened—because of state-level changes. “We had to come up with a different model,” he says.

The financing includes a mix of funds from the university and the developer, so the cost of capital is lower than it would be if only the developer provided financing, as often occurs in P3s, Brostrom says. “The campus has such strong demand for bonds,” so it lowers the cost, he adds.

San Diego State University is using the P3 model to finance its Mission Valley expansion. Initial costs, estimated at $300 million, will be financed through short-term financing and revenue bonds issued by the California State University system, and the site will be developed through P3s. The bonds will be repaid with revenue generated by leases with SDSU’s public-private partners. “We wanted the project to be self-supporting and not rely on state appropriations, tuition or fees,” says Gina Jacobs, associate vice president of Mission Valley development for the university.

When it’s complete, the expansion will allow SDSU to accommodate 15,000 to 20,000 more students. Total cost of site development—including a multiuse stadium, hotel, research space and other facilities—will be about $3 billion.


5. Corporate and individual donors

Even at colleges and universities that can tap banks or other institutions for loans, philanthropy is a key component of capital financing. “When you go to a bank, they’ll ask about the donor base,” says John Lynch, head of the Education Practice Group at SunTrust. They want to know the institution isn’t relying solely on loans to finance its capital projects.

In 2018, Lakeland University in Wisconsin launched the nation’s first bachelor’s degree program in food safety and quality. Johnsonville, a sausage producer, donated $500,000 to help the school establish a lab on campus that replicates those in the industry. Usinger’s, another sausage maker, made a financial contribution as well. SSL Industries, an equipment provider for the food industry, contributed an in-kind donation.

“Without the gift from Johnsonville, the food safety and quality lab may not have happened, and certainly would not have happened this quickly,” says David Gallianetti, director of external relations for Lakeland. “Having a lab that allows students to replicate what they’ll be doing in the workplace on the same machines is an important part of this program.”


Contributions from companies, alumni, foundations, and other groups or individuals to higher ed institutions topped $46 billion in 2018, an increase of 7.2% from a year earlier, according to the “Voluntary Support of Education” survey by CASE, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. Of that, about $4.75 billion went to property, buildings and equipment, says Fred B. Weiss, chief research and data officer.

While every capital project is different, financial institutions often like to see about two-thirds of the funds come from donors, says Lynch, of SunTrust. About half of that amount, or one-third of the overall amount, typically will be from cash already collected. The other half will be from pledges to be collected over three to five years. Then, the bank will issue long-term debt for about one-third of the total amount, as well as bridge financing that will be retired as the pledges are collected. “You need donors involved early on,” Lynch says. “You can’t just lever up.”

Karen Kroll is a Minneapolis-based writer.