June 15, 2024


Law for politics

One of Higher Ed’s Hardest Jobs Is Getting Tougher. Blame Political Interference.


If there’s a new “hot seat” in higher-education administration, it might burn hottest at the top. The job of public-college system head has seen a string of abrupt departures, board battles, and contentious searches. Last month, for example, Melody Rose resigned as chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education after less than two years on the job. Rose had filed a complaint with the system’s general counsel in 2021, alleging, among other things, harassment by members of the system’s Board of Regents based on her gender and their political views.

The nation’s growing political polarization has fueled much of the current upset in system governance, says Jill Derby, a senior consultant with the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, known as AGB, and chair of the Board of Trustees of the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani, Iraqi Kurdistan. Derby was chair of the board of the Nevada system back in the ‘90s and ‘00s and says she often didn’t know her fellow regents’ political affiliation. Now, she says, partisanship “is very much in the mix of boards.” Such dynamics can be particularly acute in states with one-party control of the governorship and legislature, according to a Chronicle analysis.

But long-running changes in what’s expected of the job have made it tougher, too. System presidents and chancellors now serve in a role that has evolved from an advocate and caretaker to a chief innovation officer from whom results are demanded. They steer collections of increasingly complex institutions through some of the most tumultuous times higher education has ever seen. And they do all this during the most politically fraught period the country has experienced in half a century.

After all, sociopolitical turmoil ensnaring a university’s top leader is nothing new, says John M. Isaacson, founder and chair of Isaacson, Miller, an executive-search company. Red scares swept campuses after World War I and during the McCarthy era, testing the resolve of system leaders. Clark Kerr, the architect of the vaunted California Master Plan for Higher Education, upon which many public-college systems are based, was fired as head of the University of California system in 1967 by a Board of Regents aligned with then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, who disapproved of the free-speech movement at the system’s Berkeley campus. Politics make these “demanding times for system heads,” Isaacson says. “But it’s in the nature of the role and not historically anomalous.”

Leaders of private colleges often deal with a board made up of alumni and others who tend to be supportive, sometimes to a fault. But public systems, which educate some 75 percent of four-year public college students, face a different set of pressures. As Americans expect more from higher education than ever before, and as states rely on public colleges to meet their education, work-force, economic, and even civic goals, the job of system leader has grown in importance and stress. “It is a moment of immense opportunity,” says Nancy L. Zimpher, chancellor emeritus of the State University of New York system, “in spite of the divisive madness that slows us down.”

Change was not necessarily a major part of the mandate for many system heads 15 years ago. The chancellor managed the system and made the case for funding to the legislature, but his or her job “wasn’t all that creative or change-oriented,” says Terrence MacTaggart, a senior fellow and senior consultant for AGB and a former chancellor of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities and the University of Maine systems. “The jobs were tough, but often not all that exciting.”

But as the higher-education landscape got more challenging after the Great Recession, state governments and students and their families began to expect more from colleges, and system leaders did, too. MacTaggart invokes Zimpher’s term at SUNY and the concept of “systemness,” a term she coined to describe using the resources of a system to deliver more than the sum of its parts. The role of chancellor began to morph, he says, “from managing and controlling to producing better results.”

After Zimpher took over as head of SUNY in 2009, she saw opportunities to use the pooled power of the 64 colleges in the system to the benefit of their students. For example, she spearheaded a move toward “seamless” transfer — a goal ready-made for the system level — that allowed students to move many course credits to any SUNY institution. While system heads can, say, create fiscal efficiencies through control of many campuses, the most important use of the scale of a large system, Zimpher says, is for the “benefit of the student who doesn’t see these institutional boundaries the way we do.”

Contemporary system leaders are expected to serve in many roles. “They are expected to frame a vision for the system that better serves the state,” says Zimpher, who directs the Power of Systems initiative for the National Association of System Heads.

For all the grumbling from professors and campus administrators about “the system office,” public colleges are unlikely to work as well as they need to without a central authority making plans and taking responsibility, says David Tandberg, senior vice president for policy research and strategic initiatives at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, known as Sheeo. “Institution-by-institution strategy for increasing educational attainment of a state, for example, isn’t likely to move the needle that far,” he says. “But when a system office implements a policy change, it affects every single institution within its system simultaneously.”

illustration of an anonymous male president surrounded by blue university building and red capitol building

Nate Kitch for The Chronicle

A system chancellor or president needs to be a tireless booster for the value proposition of higher education in his or her state, says John K. Thornburgh, a senior partner with the executive-search firm WittKieffer, as well as “be very street smart when it comes to the politics of the individual state, the players, the process, and really be comfortable dealing with the ambiguities of the public sector.” And those are just the broad strokes.

The system head’s many hats constitute only a few of the reasons the job has become harder. Public colleges are expected to recruit, retain, educate, and graduate a broader range of students, especially students from underrepresented and lower-income communities, and to educate a new work force for a new century. These mandates present even more of a challenge given resources that, in most cases, remain tight. Despite overall state support per student rising each year from 2013 to 2020, it remains 6 percent below pre-Great Recession levels, according to the Grapevine report compiled by Sheeo and Illinois State University. All of these feats must be accomplished in an increasingly polarized political climate, Zimpher says, that sometimes “makes finding a path that suits everybody almost impossible.”

The many demands of the job may make it more challenging, but for some, they make the job more attractive. Such leaders have a passion for the state, or for improving education, or for career advancement, or some combination of all three. “There was legitimate criticism of leaders in the past for being caretakers, not working to improve the systems that they oversaw,” says Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the California Community Colleges. More states are expecting leaders to change their public-college systems, he adds, and “the reason I became the chancellor is because of that expectation.”

But Covid-19 made a fraught situation nearly untenable for some leaders, especially after political polarization complicated some systems’ response to the virus. “There do appear to be a lot of retirements in the world right now,” says Dannel P. Malloy, chancellor of the University of Maine system and a former Democratic governor of Connecticut. “That has not escaped higher ed, and I suspect some of it is partially based on the clash that exists in our society today.”

Dealing with politics is nothing new for system leaders, but the intensity and types of political scrutiny they have to contend with have changed significantly. Oakley says he’s used to being second-guessed by legislators, the press, and everyday Californians about his work, or even his salary. “But the magnitude has just gone through the roof,” he says, with skepticism coming from both the political far left and far right. “Everything you say now is viewed from a lens in the public of what kind of conspiracy is going on behind the scenes,” he says. “And that conspiracy piece, I think, is relatively new.”

The increase in political friction between public-college system heads and system boards is antithetical to the very idea of having board governance, says Derby of AGB. “The whole premise of citizen trusteeship is based on keeping the government’s hands out,” she says. “Otherwise, why have it?” But the infusion of partisanship in public-system boards is a risk because their membership is determined through inherently political means.

Depending on the state, board members are appointed by the governor or legislature, or elected by district. In appointing board members, “politicians are going to look to where they can have more influence,” says Tandberg of Sheeo. “System offices are very attractive targets for them, because they know systems can impact many districts all at once and many institutions and students all at once.”

As politics have become more aggressively partisan in many states, that partisanship has become more transparent in appointed board members. Last year, the Board of Trustees of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sparked a national furor when it initially declined to consider the tenure application of Nikole Hannah-Jones as the Knight chair in race and investigative journalism in the university’s school of journalism and media. The snub was interpreted as a reaction by the Board of Trustees, whose members are seated by the Republican-dominated legislature and under pressure from conservative donors to the university, to Hannah-Jones’s work on “The 1619 Project,” which places slavery at the center of American history. The board later offered tenure, which Hannah-Jones turned down, instead accepting a position at Howard University.

Elected board members can reflect the electoral politics of their states as well. “Elected boards can produce very, very good trustees,” says MacTaggart of ABG. “They can also produce folks with an ax to grind, or who see themselves in political terms, serving a constituency.” For example, some of the pushback among trustees in some states over diversity training or the teaching of “divisive” topics at public colleges may arise from genuine concern, he says, but it’s often “a blatant political agenda.”

No matter how they get onto a public-college board, trustees, especially at the system level, often have their own motives. Derby says that she and her colleagues at AGB have a saying: Trusteeship is a team sport, but most of the members are quarterbacks. “They tend to be prominent people,” she says, “that come with preformed views about a lot of things and have held leadership roles and are used to being in charge in their own domains.”

The clash of ideologies and personalities that have beset some system leadership structures have created a situation in which it’s almost impossible to find common ground. It’s often up to system heads to try to find solutions that satisfy stakeholders on all sides. Some leaders strive to have direct conversations with as many constituents as possible, including faculty members, administrators, board members, and legislators, which can benefit people on many sides of an issue, says Mun Y. Choi, president of the University of Missouri system. “When I do go down to Jeff City to meet with legislators who may have a concern about what is being taught in a class, by having that conversation, in many ways, we find out perhaps there are different ways that we can do our jobs,” he says. “But also at the same it brings a better understanding to the legislators that academic freedom is very important.” It is part of Choi’s job to defend academic freedom at the university, “but indoctrination is what I believe many legislators are concerned about, and we must avoid indoctrination.”

But trustees are just one constituency to manage. Accreditors have gotten involved in several recent high-profile controversies. In 2019, for example, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities expressed concern to the University of Alaska system leadership over meeting standards for accreditation during a period of severe budget cuts and restructuring. Last year, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges announced that it would investigate allegations that the University of Florida had denied three professors’ requests to testify in a voting-rights lawsuit.

Derby wishes that public-system board members would more often consider the consequences for the institutions before they pick fights. A state flagship can probably survive an isolated public flap without much harm, she says, but a climate of bad faith and suspicion can create long-term damage. The dissension between Nevada’s Board of Regents and soon-to-depart Chancellor Rose “spreads a layer of musty uncertainty and stain over the whole system,” Derby wrote in a 2021 opinion essay for The Nevada Independent.

To be fair, she says, boards, like system heads, now deal with more complex issues, and do so under more scrutiny than ever. But when AGB consultants work with boards today, they stress that boards must remain autonomous and not be beholden to any one stakeholder, she says, messages that would have not needed any special emphasis 20 years ago.

The political climate in some states can also help system leaders stay the course. Oakley, who became chancellor of the California Community Colleges in 2016, outlasted votes of no confidence in 2019 from the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges, an advocacy and lobbying group, and the California Federation of Teachers, a union that represents system faculty members. The votes arose over dissatisfaction with a new funding formula and the system’s troubled competency-based online Calbright College, which state lawmakers have unsuccessfully tried to kill several times since it opened that year. As long as Gavin Newsom, the Democratic governor, supports him, “I can make a lot of people unhappy in my state,” Oakley says. “If we’re at odds, it’s time for me to move on.”

Some system heads take turmoil in stride. Margaret Spellings, the former secretary of education under President George W. Bush and now president of Texas 2036, a public-policy group, served a contentious stint as president of the University of North Carolina system from 2016 to 2019. Spellings was pulled into a series of culture-war battles, at the state and campus level, including controversies over North Carolina’s 2016 anti-transgender “bathroom bill” and the Chapel Hill flagship’s Silent Sam Confederate monument. She resigned three years into a five-year contract. While it’s gotten more difficult to navigate different agendas as a public servant amid more polarized politics, Spellings says, “honestly, it’s also part of the fun of the job.”

What makes a good system leader? The skill set is similar to that of the leader of a large university, says Isaacson, of Isaacson, Miller. A university president has to run a sprawling and varied enterprise. She or he may have been before the legislature several times and struck numerous partnerships with local business and industry. She or he has juggled the concerns of a wide spectrum of stakeholders, often regarding contentious social issues.

The list of personal attributes of a good system head would be similar to those of any top administrator: a thick skin, good communication skills, honesty and forthrightness, patience, a cool head in a crisis, and humility. Especially important is the ability to relate to people. “Relationships, relationships, relationships,” Spellings says.

But there are also significant differences — and sacrifices — involved in the leap from a campus presidency to a system chancellorship. System heads don’t spend much time courting donors, but “you’re not going to get your jollies as much from mixing and mingling with students on campuses, going to sporting events, going to cultural events, interacting regularly with faculty,’’ says Thornburgh, of WittKieffer. “A lot of the presidents and chancellors of a campus are not willing to relinquish the stuff that they really enjoy.” Becoming a system leader means stepping back from day-to-day operations, delegating control to focus on the bigger picture, and accepting longer-term, and perhaps more diffuse, satisfactions.

When colleagues ask Oakley for advice on applying for a system-leader job, he raises the increased distance from the action, and “the question to them is always, Is that who you want to be?” he says. “Some people just don’t realize that they’re not good at the broader issues until they get there, and it’s too late.”

But leading a public-college system isn’t necessarily a job that only an academic can do. Thornburgh did an informal survey of system leaders a few years ago and found that fewer than half of them had a terminal degree, and many of them were law degrees, not Ph.D.s. From a search perspective, he says, “it is not critical that a system head be as steeped in academic accomplishments as it is for the president of a standalone campus.”

In recent years, higher education has experienced a vogue for “nontraditional” leaders, especially politicians, former military leaders, and businesspeople. The trend has been driven in part by the perception among some elected officials and board members that a president or chancellor who has held a government office will be better at navigating statehouse politics, or that one who is less steeped in the traditions of academe might lead change and spark more efficiency. But the rigors of a being a system head can flummox even seasoned leaders. William H. McRaven, a former U.S. Navy admiral, resigned as chancellor of the University of Texas system after only three years, calling such positions “the toughest job in the nation.”

But not all nontraditional candidates are created equal. Would-be chancellors from a corporate background can do a good job if they also offer sophisticated political understanding and a nuanced view of substantive higher-education issues, says Isaacson, “but it’s not really a job where somebody coming out of a successful business would naturally understand the nature of the job.” Improving the financial situation of a system is important to its mission, but not at the core.

When a candidate for a system-leader spot is coming from outside higher education, it can help to have an in. Deep ties to the state in question seem especially helpful. “It’s rare that we would parachute someone in from another state who doesn’t have an appreciation for the territory,” Thornburgh says. WittKieffer helped with the search for Jay O. Rothman, the incoming president of the University of Wisconsin system, a Harvard-educated lawyer “who had never been on campus, never been in the roles of faculty,” he adds, “but he had a keen commitment to education and also knew Wisconsin intimately.”

Boards no longer have to look outside academe for leaders who are going to shake things up, says MacTaggart of AGB. The stereotype persists of the lifelong academic who has gotten ahead through consensus and is gun shy about decisive action. “A former system head who has been out of office for 10 years told me that his hesitancy in hiring academic VPs to be a president is very often they’ve never fired anybody,” MacTaggart says. But he sees a new breed of tougher-minded, more pragmatic academics with the faculty pedigree but the organizational traits more typically ascribed to business and military leaders.

In these politically polarized times, a distinctive political brand can be a liability for a potential system head, Thornburgh says. A board that leans one way, for example, may not want to hire a candidate who goes against its thinking, but also may not want to be perceived as hiring a candidate who mirrors its philosophy too closely. In most system-leader recruiting situations, “the board is sensitive to how the politics and the optics will play out with one candidate versus another,” he says. If a candidate has evinced controversial sociopolitical stances in the past, “they’ll more often than not head that off at the pass, as opposed to learning the hard way.”

A strong partisan brand isn’t a dealbreaker, though. The Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia recently hired as chancellor Sonny Perdue, a former Republican governor of the state and a former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under President Donald J. Trump. He was the lone finalist for the job, despite never having run a college. The Board of Regents paused the search briefly last year after the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges questioned whether the search for a chancellor wasn’t subject to “undue political influence.”

As challenging as it may be to find the right person to run a state system these days, people continue to apply. The conventional wisdom says that the growing difficulties of serving as a college president made that position less attractive over the last decade, but Oakley, of California, isn’t buying it. That’s “horse manure,” he says. At conferences, he hears colleagues complaining about what goes on in their states, “but you always find that there are still the same people in these application pools,” he says. “There will always be people who want to take on these jobs.”


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