Leadership in Higher Education Is Due for a Change: Co-Presidents (Really)

By Karen Gross

Harvard University recently appointed a new president, Larry Bacow. He’s a well-known, highly regarded leader, having spent the better part of his adult life in educational administration. He’s been president of Tufts and chancellor of MIT; he also served on the Corporation, Harvard’s governing board, prior to being considered a presidential candidate. And the announcements have been clear: Even at Harvard, he has many real challenges ahead of him.
Few question the difficulties of being a college or university president in today’s era: The issues about, the needed skills are abundant and the stresses and strains real. Perhaps that is why there is even a recent book with the frightening title: Presidencies Derailed.

When I left (voluntarily) the small college I led for eight plus years (longer than the average tenure in such posts), I was and still am asked if I would consider another presidency. Until very recently, I always said “one and done.” While that is a demeaning term in collegiate athletics, I did not see anything negative in saying “one presidency is enough.” It is a lifestyle, not a job.

To be clear, Larry Bacow also apparently said, as he was leaving Tufts University, that he was one and done, reportedly using those very words. Yes, people can change their minds for sure.

But make no mistake about this: The work of college and university presidencies is getting harder not easier with the passage of time. The challenges are wide-ranging from fundraising and “friendraising” to quests for academic excellence and its quality measurement, from developing a healthy culture on campus without sexual assault and harassment to access and financial support for students who are not from wealthy families or elite high schools and prep schools. Add to all this, the problems that arise in athletics, running an art (and other) museums (and their collections), dealing with deferred maintenance and wrestling with the parameters of free speech.

And, we have a federal government that is challenging the role and importance of a college degree, a government that is also forcing us to re-think institutional finance due to changes in the tax laws that impact many while reflecting deeply on notions of truth and power as well as civility, cooperation and collaboration. Not all states are exactly higher education aficionados either.

Two heads are better than one?

A higher education recruiter recently approached me regarding a college presidency (name and place deleted in the interests of privacy). I don’t know what possessed me to say what I said but I repeat it here: “I would not do another presidency unless it is constructed as a co-presidency.” I later added that, as an alternative, I would need to bring a senior team with me in the absence of a co-presidency, something that is antithetic to academic culture at most institutions.

Having said what I said, I needed to back it up in writing—which I have done. And the idea, which I will flesh out a bit more here, has most assuredly not met with universal approval. Indeed, some comments have been downright demeaning—suggesting that co-presidencies would replicate the good cop/bad cop aspects of parenting and thus lead to institutional disaster. Others were kinder, suggesting the idea was good but impossible, suggesting that finding co-presidents who worked well together would be like finding a celestial match. And to be clear, I don’t know any angels.

Let me start, in support of co-presidencies, with these observations. Educational administrative structure does not work well in many instances. We are not altogether clear on the role of provosts and deans, as debated in a recent piece in Insider Higher Ed. There are many openings for presidencies, some with awfully quick exits; just look at the Comings and Goings appearing in our emails on Wednesday of each week and produced by NEJHE. And there are searches, although rarely disclosed, that fail to find leaders who meet the criteria of trustees, faculty, staff and students. And presidents are staying in their roles for shorter time periods. Indeed, half the presidents report that they plan to serve for less than five years.

Don’t underestimate the price institutions pay—literally and figuratively—for failed presidencies and failed searches. The rush of recent resignations of longer-serving presidents is also not exactly a sign of leadership good health. And calls for resignation, even if not realized immediately, are institutionally disruptive.

So, why not consider a solution that has been tried outside academe. For example, co-presidencies are increasingly common in business. In late 2017, Apollo Global Management LP became the most recent example. Decades ago now, the Graduate School of Education at Harvard had co-academic deans. And within the academic sphere, there are several instances of interim co-presidents.

Risks and benefits

I could detail the risks of co-presidencies but people surely can imagine those with little effort. What’s harder is to see the benefits and demonstrate that in some situations, a co-presidency makes extraordinary sense. And those critiquing my idea misstate that I mean for co-presidencies to be appointed at every institution. Wrong. That is not what I am saying; nor would such appointment necessarily work. Knowing when they might work within an institution’s needs, culture, structure, challenges and history is key.

Instead of thinking about co-presidents like parents or conductors of an orchestra (a common analogy used when thinking about leadership generally and leading an educational institution with its multiple interests in particular), first think of airline pilots.

On every flight (virtually), there are co-pilots. Yes, there is a captain but his/her partner is called a co-pilot. They are a team that may have not even met before a particular flight. They know their tasks; they work together; they problem-solve together; they communicate; they collaborate. They each can do the other’s job to a tee. They are responsible for the lives of hundreds of people—together. And if there were a sudden need for an immediate decision and no time to discuss how to act (a rarity I assume), I cannot imagine most pilots bickering for long given that their own lives are at stake in addition to the lives of others; I assume one pilot makes the needed choice. Egos are, as a generalizable matter, in check—and I assume pilots have no shortage of ego strength.

Now consider surgical teams—two humans as opposed to a human surgeon and a robotic president (something even I am not suggesting at colleges and universities). Yes, there used to be a lead-surgeon in most surgeries, but in many of today’s complex medical situations, different established surgeons work together on different body parts and body systems as co-surgeons.

Surgeons may fight on television and perhaps in an occasional OR suite. But if I were to guess, good surgeons learn to work together and prefer working with fellow surgeons and anesthesiologists and nurses they know. Recent studies suggest some noticeable benefits of co-surgeries (with two attending physicians not one lead surgeon and one resident) although the literature is still not robust.

Decisions large and small

While some pilot and surgeon decisions are grand in size and impact, it is not as if every decision has massive consequences. Small decisions are delegated all the time on campuses. The big strategic decisions are usually ones that require both time and reflection and often require input from the board, among other groups; two people can do that as well or perhaps better than one person. And if there is an emergency or a disaster and an immediate decision must be decided, perhaps the co-presidents could agree with the board ahead of time as to who makes that call or the responsible person could change from month to month or year to year.

And if there were to be consideration of co-presidents, they would have to be interviewed both together and separately. I can see interview teams asking each possible co-president to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of his/her counterpart. And there would need to be opportunities to see them engaging with each other and with others including faculty, staff and students. Trustees too.

So, how would one come up with individuals who could be co-presidents? I think we’d need to change the paradigm for how presidents are identified and selected. I also think there would have to be a movement, a shift, in how the hiring is done, a response to the realities of the jobs that college/university presidents face.

A search

I can think of a half dozen people right now with whom I would and could happily serve as a co-president were I ever to consider another presidency (another issue altogether). To be fair, two of the people I think of have retired, but the point is I could have been a co-president with them. I do not think I am alone as an educator in being able to identify a handful of people with whom I could work well and intimately, without ego problems and with enormous sharing, communication and institutional benefit.

Here are three examples:

I can think of a current provost who wants to be a president who has real expertise in admissions, financial aid and diversity. He is younger than I am; I have known him for decades. We have worked on projects together (not in the same institution). He has served as a House Master in a campus dorm (with his wife and two children). He is thoughtful and innovative; he has a degree in Divinity. He has skills related to student life and admissions—and I can see us working on overall policy but then overseeing different areas of life within and outside a college’s walls.

There is a CFO, with whom I have worked in the Northeast, who would make an excellent co-president. He is multitalented and has served at many institutions, including in times of crisis. He also understands accreditation—both regional and programmatic, and he is decent and hard-working and thoughtful and careful. He sees problems before they actually are problems. He values teamwork.

Finally, and don’t worry because I see the risks here: there is my life partner, with whom I could easily be a co-president. He and I have very similar values and a desire to make the world a better place. We are both a product of the 1960s and you could call us both advocates and activists. But his experience in the working world (although he has taught and written including a major book in his field) is in government and technology. He has worked in several federal government agencies; he gets how institutions and processes work; he gets which technology is literally on the cusp. He cares about data and the role of big data. He understands cybersecurity and interoperability. He is smart and funny and fun and sociable.

And, none of these individuals would be scared to voice their views if they differed from my own. They all have.

My point is this: no one person in this day and age can have all the skills it takes to be a college or university president. The list is simply too long and too diverse. My shortcomings are plentiful. And, while a leader can surround him or herself with excellent talent and a sensation senior leadership team, ideally in areas in which the leader is not as strong, there is a value to considering a different model: co-leadership.

Increasing the pool

Co-presidencies would, I think, increase the pool of candidates. We need that and it would foster diversity in all ways—age, race, skills, ethnicity, experience. Next, they would send a loud and clear message about collaboration and cooperation and the busting of silos. An academic could partner with a government or business official. A financially savvy person could partner with someone with vast expertise in student life. It is about putting one’s ego in the right place and giving glory to another and accepting blame. It is fundamentally about some of the very skills we want students to acquire: problem-solving, teamwork and decency.

I think a co-presidency would set an example. It models risk-taking and out-of-the-box approaches in real time. It shows the capacity to try new ideas and explore new territory thoughtfully and with deep regard for the risks and benefits. And it highlights the real world: the complexity of problems we face and the need to ask for and get help—not as a sign of weakness but as a sign of strength.

Co-presidencies are not toys of the moment; there are rich examples and case studies that can be evaluated. I see co-presidencies at this moment in time as enabling key educational institutions in American culture to be lead with expertise, grace, equanimity, talent and collaboration. And it is reflective of how many decisions are needed and how many are ones that can be shared.

And perhaps, just perhaps, there are added upsides to co-presidencies that we do not yet know about or cannot anticipate. I, for one, believe those positive possibilities exist.

Karen Gross is senior counsel with Finn Partners, former president of Southern Vermont College and author of Breakaway Learners: Strategies for Post-Secondary Success with At-Risk Students. This piece on co-presidencies is based on a similar article by Gross published in the Aspen Journal of Ideas.



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