Making Leadership Matter

January 28, 2022

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.