Sidney Ribeau, president of Howard University, abruptly announced this month that he would retire from his post at the end of the year, despite having signed a contract extension during the summer to keep him as president for two more years.
"Serving as the president of Howard University was the opportunity of a lifetime," Ribeau said in his announcement. "It is one I will always treasure."
The announcement came as a surprise to some, as Ribeau had undertaken an ambitious strategy to revamp the Washington, D.C., university's curriculum and break ground on several new buildings on campus. But the university had also seen its share of trouble under Ribeau, and board members had expressed concerns about the institution's financial health.
As Ribeau's example shows, the role of the university president is a precarious position – and is becoming increasingly so.
Former Norfolk State University President Tony Atwater was fired by the university's board in August.
At a time when funding for higher education is at a tipping point and employment outcomes are less than favorable, many question the value of a higher education and scrutinize the men and women who hold the seats of power at colleges and universities across the country. Even President Obama has weighed in, challenging colleges to train millions more workers while keeping their costs down. States, as well as colleges, he said in his 2012 State of the Union address, are not doing their part.
"So let me put colleges and universities on notice: If you can't stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down," Obama said. "Higher education can't be a luxury – it is an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford."
Long gone are the days when university leaders could pack their bags at the end of the year, not returning to campus until the convocation of classes in September.
"Once upon a time, institutions were quiet, easygoing," says Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president emeritus of George Washington University. "Fundraising used to be a gentlemanly sort of thing in which the president picked up the phone and called some rich member of the board of trustees, and the next thing you knew, you had a new athletic arena."
But the job has changed so much in the last 10 to 20 years that many who assume the positions are unprepared for what lies ahead, says Trachtenberg, who served as president of University of Hartford in Connecticut for 11 years, before taking the reigns at George Washington University for nearly two decades, from 1988 to 2007.
"It has become a very daunting, very challenging job, frequently calling for a skill set that most presidents have not prepared for," Trachtenberg says.
Traditionally, university presidents have come from academia, ascending through the ranks of an institution. They hold advanced degrees that serve as a sort of "union card" that legitimizes them, having excelled early on in their teaching and research careers to command the respect of their colleagues. Their primary role was maintaining the academic standards of the university and maintaining a good relationship with faculty members. And it was a job with perks: average annual salaries of more than $350,000, often a plush residence on campus, and the knowledge that you were one of the communities' prime citizens.
But universities nationwide are having their budgets pinched, creating myriad issues that have fallen into the laps of presidents and are pushing many to leave their posts early. It is not enough just to be a noted academic; today's presidents are now also the chief financial officers, the fundraisers and philanthropists, the advocates, the governmental lobbyists and the "cheerleaders-in-chief" for their institutions. And there is pressure to maintain their college's position in the numerous rankings that come out annually, including those of U.S. News.
Between 2009 and 2010, Trachtenberg says, 50 university and college presidents either resigned, retired early or were fired. And that trend appears to be continuing.
Ribeau's announcement at Howard followed months of debate over the financial strength of the prestigious historically black university, as well as a meeting with the university's board of trustees that weekend. The university's enrollment dropped 5 percent in 2012, and although it made a slight improvement in 2013, it wasn't enough to completely make up the previous year's fall. A week before Ribeau's Oct. 1 announcement, Moody's Investors Service downgraded the university's credit rating, saying the its outlook was "negative." And Howard's standing in the U.S. News college rankings also fell dramatically during Ribeau's tenure – from 96th in 2010 to 120th in 2013 and 142nd in 2014.
Former Ohio State University President E. Gordon Gee announced his retirement in June.
Norfolk State University's Board of Visitors voted 7-4 in August to fire then-president Tony Atwater, just days before the fall semester began and 10 months before his contract was set to expire. Following his dismissal, Atwater said the vote was "sudden, unexpected, and disappointing," but state legislators later revealed Atwater had failed to complete financial audits for several years, and also said communication was a problem.
In June, Gary Russi, president of Oakland University in southeast Michigan, announced he would retire after 20 years of leading the university. The chair of the university's Board of Trustees described Russi as a "transformational leader" who led the school through a time of tremendous growth. But the announcement came the same day Russi's wife, Beckie Francis, was fired with cause as the head women's basketball coach.
And Gordon Gee, president of Ohio State University, announced his retirement in June amid criticism launched his way for making controversial statements about other schools' academic quality, the collegiate athletic Southeastern Conference, and the Catholic Church at a Dec. 5, 2012, meeting of the university's Athletic Council, although Gee insisted that was not the reason for his early departure.
Feeling the pressure
Carl "Tobey" Oxholm was president of Arcadia University, a private nonprofit institution in Pennsylvania, until he says he was abruptly terminated by the school's board of trustees in March, after only 20 months on the job.
Oxholm continues to say he doesn't know exactly why he was dismissed because the board terminated him "without cause," and without discussing any concerns with him beforehand. Board members have only said publicly that it "wasn't a good fit", but Oxholm says he believes he could have helped his situation by communicating better with different members at the university, including the board.
"Every time you make a decision to change something, you're increasing people's angst," Oxholm says. "Change can look very scatter-shot unless you understand that all these points add up to a picture. I didn't do a good enough job making sure I talked with the board about all the different things I was seeing and why I was doing what I was doing."
Oxholm, who came to the presidency after serving as a senior administrator at Drexel University, formed a health benefits advisory committee at Arcadia, for example, to look for ways to reduce the cost of the program while still maintaining its quality. He says he also worked on initiatives for faculty to ensure they were being paid enough in relation to their workloads, and for students, to ensure rooms on campus were being used efficiently and to upgrade outdated ones.
Oxholm says part of the disquiet comes from the fact that the business sides of universities are becoming more important. But in order to balance a budget and maintain access, he says presidents have to make difficult choices that may not always be welcomed by the different constituencies within a campus.
Schools are being challenged from so many different angles at once, Oxholm says, that many faculty and even administrators are hidebound, reluctant to change their ways.
"American universities are now being challenged by increasing competition from overseas, from online, from specialty programs and from state schools," Oxholm says. "This is all at a time when the market for traditional college-aged students coming from high school is shrinking. That puts a lot of pressure on universities that are heavily dependent on tuition revenues."
Supply and demand
The importance of getting the right mix of students – those from out-of-state who might pay more to attend public universities and those whose higher qualifications who might help raise a school's performance in college rankings – can be seen in the case of Joseph Urgo. He asked St. Mary's College of Maryland's board of trustees not to renew his contract in June after he failed to enroll enough students for the 2013-14 school year, which is expected to cost the school millions in lost tuition revenue. Managing a college's "yield" – the percentage of accepted students who actually enroll – has become even more important in an era of financial limits.
Each year, thousands of colleges and universities turn to enrollment management firms for additional assistance in not only recruiting the right number and quality of students, but also retaining the ones they have.
Tim Fournier, managing director of Huron Education, a consulting firm that helps institutions manage enrollment, says many colleges are facing a shift from a time when the number of college-aged students surged. Colleges and universities expanded their programs, amenities and facilities, as well as their degree programs to accommodate that growth. But now, when there is a shifting demographic, with more adult students, colleges have to face a shift in mindset.
"We've created a mindset that growth is the only thing that matters," Fournier says. "It's the primary focus for many vice presidents of enrollment, and many presidents in general, that without growth in numbers, something must be wrong with the institution."
Additionally, in the last five to six years, Fournier says more public universities are getting involved with enrollment management firms, due to financial pressures and increased competition from private universities. "The competitive environment between publics and privates, I think, is stronger than we've ever seen before," Fournier says. "Privates are picking off the top applicants who would otherwise normally go to a state school, historically, by providing significant discounting to make it competitive for those students."
Financial challenges overall are particularly evident at public universities, where states have repeatedly slashed funding for higher education, says Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities.
"It's pretty dramatic and it's been going on now for a number of years, so that creates a lot of pressure," Rawlings says. In addition to boosting philanthropy and fundraising efforts, some public universities also resort to admitting more out-of-state and international students, who pay extra tuition fees and can make up some lost revenue.
This may be part of the reason the tenure of public university presidents is so much shorter than those at private universities, where presidents sometimes serve up to 20 years.
To that end, Rawlings says, public university presidents need to be "masters" of the political process to lobby for state support for education. And in order to navigate keeping tuition down while maintaining campus facilities, financial aid, and employee benefits, Rawlings says presidents must learn the nuances of people skills that accompany public financing and alumni relations. This can be particularly challenging for academics who are not used to leading a public life, he added.
Robert Birgeneau served as chancellor of the University of California–Berkeley for nine years. When he came to Berkeley in 2004, Birgeneau says state funding made up about 30 percent of the budget. But when he left in 2013, it was down to about 10 percent.
"We had to manage this transition," Birgeneau says. "We had to put a huge amount of energy into guaranteeing that our financial aid programs would be successful, which we did."
Robert Birgeneau, former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley.
But tuition throughout the university system still sharply increased, causing unrest among students and faculty.
Still, Birgeneau says he is proud of his term as chancellor and that there are still many fulfilling aspects of the job. "Of course, we would all like to live in ideal worlds, but it was a time period where leadership really mattered," Birgeneau says. "We managed to maintain our public character in spite of the fact that the state dis-invested in an egregious way."
Oxholm agrees, saying it is critical to find leaders who recognize the importance of public service, and the "necessity of being creators and imaginators." Higher education, he says, is the "last place" society has to guide and shape the minds of a future generation.
"It's a great time to be a leader of higher education," Oxholm says. "Part of the joy of the job, quite frankly, is to see students who are engaged in learning, or service, or whatever it might be, and recognizing their true potential. That's what higher education does - it transforms. It allows people to see their potential and make strides toward achieving it."
Now, current and former presidents say leadership matters more than ever. But successors will have to be prepared to become jacks of all trades to keep up with the public scrutiny of the direction, future and costs of higher education.
"Things are harder now, and more constant," Trachtenberg says. "The presidency is no longer a stroll. It is no longer a dash. It is a marathon."
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