Book Review: Propping Up Presidencies?

Presidencies Derailed: Why University Leaders Fail and How to Prevent It; Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, Gerald B. Kauvar, and E. Grady Bogue; The Johns Hopkins University Press; 2013.
Most books on the college presidency are either autobiographies or prescriptions for success. We avoid autopsies, diagnoses of leadership collapses and college president resignations/terminations. Usually no one wants to be the coroner or public health officer. This is too bad, because there are a few dozen serious presidential breakdowns each year.

This book summarizes 16 cases where the new president did not complete the initial contract, resigning or fired oftentimes by the second year. Two “derailed” presidents tell their side of the story, and there are three chapters on the lessons learned from administrative train wrecks.

The book delivers more than the subtitle promises, providing separate chapters with cases at community colleges, private liberal arts colleges, master’s degree universities and research universities. There is no one cause, but many instances of bad judgment by presidents and their boards, alienation of faculty or community leadership, and a few cases of overspending, inappropriate relationships, deception and ethical violations.

Trachtenberg knows the presidency. He was a dean and vice president for John Silber at Boston University, then president first of the University of Hartford and later of George Washington University (GW). He chairs the higher education search practice for Korn Ferry, and has written a candid article for NEJHE on the pitfalls facing search committees. This new volume repeats some of those useful insights. Gerald Kauvar has served as an assistant at GW and elsewhere. Grady Bogue has been chancellor of two southern universities. Several University of Tennessee doctoral students completed relevant analyses of short-term presidencies.

There were too many examples of difficulties created by corporate board members who favored top-down leadership in contrast to an open and participatory leadership style. To make a university “run like a business” runs the risk of sneering at shared governance, tenure and a strong role for faculty members and deans who provide the intellectual content that makes colleges and universities great. Those attitudes can be fatal for a college president.

The remedies include smaller search committees, carefully planned transitions and board support including annual evaluations of presidents, and the use of dashboards with the most important data displayed for all to see. This book should be read by presidential search committees and purchased by vice presidents worried about their president’s success. It provides great cases for discussion in higher education leadership programs. Higher education organizations in Washington D.C., especially the Association of Governing Boards, should recommend this book to members. Trachtenberg remains positive about trustees who share their wisdom and wealth and can be even more supportive of campus values and of new presidents.

Joseph M. Cronin is director of the college consulting company EDVISORS and former president of Bentley University.

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