Presidencies Derailed: Why University Leaders Fail And How To Prevent It

reviewed by D. Bruce Johnstone — July 31, 2014 in Teachers College Record (this is an excerpt)

coverTitle: Presidencies Derailed: Why University Leaders Fail and How to Prevent It
Author(s): Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, Gerald B. Kauvar, & E. Grady Bogue
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore
ISBN: 1421410249, Pages: 184, Year: 2

Presidencies Derailed is a compact, provocative, mostly beautifully written accounting of causes for, and lessons to be learned from, presidencies that fail before the end of their initial contracts (or expected terms). The authors focus on first term derailments because, while there are always causes, and while most (although not all) causes reflect some kind of lapse (or worse) on the part of the presidents who resigned prematurely or were abruptly fired, these unfortunate and costly experiences also generally represent failures in the governing board’s processes to search, select, launch, and nurture their new campus leaders. Derailments are enormously costly, whether measured in the lost time and morale of the governing board members and other stakeholders involved in the failed search, a fracturing of what traditions of shared governance may have existed, a similar fracturing of governing board cohesiveness (although such pre-existing fractures may have had a major hand in the derailment), in the monetary cost of a new search, in the loss of important constituencies and donors, and in disrupted campus plans.

Presidential derailments are not uncommon: the authors cite some 50 college, university, and system heads who resigned, retired prematurely, or were overtly fired in 2009 and 2010. While drawing on personal experiences, the extensive literature on college and university governance, and on the literature of leadership styles and transitions in the corporate world, much of the meat of the analysis relies on 16 extensive case studies of presidential derailments: four studies each of failed presidencies in private liberal arts colleges, public masters-level institutions, public research universities, and public community colleges.

The causes for presidential derailments are usually multiple, complex, and contested. They are generally given great play in the media (both print and social) while shrouded in official secrecy and exacerbated by extensive rumors and diverse personal agendas. As the case studies were real and necessarily involved real or perceived ethical lapses, damaged careers, humiliation, and sometimes lawsuits, the authors have disguised the names of the persons and institutions studied. The cases and the generalizations drawn from them are recounted with great sensitivity and deference to the complexities and multiple perceptions involved with such experiences. At the same time, they do not shy away from identifying the widespread perceptions of moral and ethical lapses, political corruption, and dysfunctional behavior that so frequently derail campus heads.

The sixteen very diverse case studies are cleverly woven together with the six derailment themes, all of which were found in some of the cases, and most cases revealing several. Four of the themes were taken from the literature of failures in business leadership, all of which seem equally applicable to college and university presidential derailments. These were: (a) failure to meet institutional objectives and needs; (b) problems with interpersonal relationships (whether with board members, faculty, executive staff, or community leaders); (c) inability to lead key constituencies, including inability to build and develop a strong executive staff, delegate appropriately, and be generally accepted as a leader who has listened widely and acted with sensitivity and integrity for the good of the institution; and (d) difficulty adapting, including difficulty or unwillingness to comprehend the institutional history and culture when making the decisions for the long term good of the institution. To these four generic leadership failures, and drawn from the case studies as well as their own leadership experiences, the authors add two that they believe to be more peculiar to institutions of higher education (whether public or private, large or small, or elite research campuses or less selective teaching institutions): (e) ethical lapses and (f) board shortcomings.


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