College Presidents Lose Staying Power

THE life of a college president isn't what it used to be. Once considered a job with life-long tenure, turnover rates are increasing and vacancies are becoming more difficult to fill, according to the Association of American Universities in Washington. At the 2,000 institutions of higher education in the United States, there is an annual turnover rate of about 300 to 400 among academic presidents, according to a new report from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

In the past year, 20 of the 56 institutions in the elite Association of American Universities have either hired a new president or are looking for one, says Peter Smith, director of public affairs.

Many of these leadership changes are the result of a batch of administrators all reaching retirement age around the same time, Mr. Smith says. But it is becoming more and more common for a college president to leave one institution for another or be fired.

Some people are unwilling to sacrifice scholarly life in exchange for the demands of presidential leadership. Last year Phillip A. Sharp, a biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., accepted the position of president there. But within a week Dr. Sharp changed his mind, citing a reluctance to sever his research opportunities.

The demands on college and university presidents have always been heavy, higher education scholars say. But increasingly, the position requires nonstop fundraising in one form or another.

"In the private [colleges] sector, it's back-to-back, wall-to-wall fund drives," says Robert Atwell, president of the American Council on Education, a Washington organization representing 1,800 colleges and universities.

At public universities, politics and incessant lobbying for funds drive many leaders out of the president's office prematurely. "You've got some really alarming decreases in tenure in the public sector," says Mr. Atwell.

The average stay of a college president is seven years, according to the Carnegie report, "Choosing a College President: Opportunities and Constraints."

But at public institutions the average term of presidency is about four or five years and "dropping fast," Atwell says. Not since the 1960s have presidents had such limited terms.

These are tough times for higher education. State fiscal problems are causing sharp budget cuts in many states, and the "go-go" decade of the '80s is over, says Arthur Levine, chairman of the Institute for Educational Management at Harvard University.

Despite increased rhetoric about focusing on the quality of teaching at the undergraduate level, presidents are largely judged by more peripheral matters.

"If you're a private-sector president," Atwell says, "you get judged on the basis of how well you raise money. All presidents seem to get judged on increases in the SAT scores of their entering students, which tells you precisely nothing about what's going on in the institution. Sometimes you even get judged by how well the basketball team is doing."

Until the expectations of governing boards change, Atwell and others argue, presidents are not going to be able to focus on the academic quality of their institutions.

In the foreword to the report on presidential searches, Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation writes: "I'm convinced that a larger, more inspired vision of the presidency is required, and, in the coming decades, a vigorous educational and moral leadership will be needed to strengthen the spirit of the community on campus, give a clear sense of direction to the enterprise, and bring personal integrity and creativity to the task."

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