As a retired president and executive search consultant, I get a lot of inquiries from current presidents considering leaving the presidency, especially in the aftermath of this pandemic, who would like to know how to do so. I also receive inquiries from councils on how best to implement a successful transition.
Ideally, presidential transitions should be unnoticed: the outgoing president resigns or retires, the board conducts research, the new president arrives, and the college stays on course as if very little has changed, even though it has. But whether presidential transitions are normal or difficult, the departure process is not fully understood either by the president who is considering leaving or by the board of directors who should appoint a successor.
Why do presidents decide to leave their organizations?
Age is often the reason, of course. This is not to say that Chiefs are still active in their 70s – I know some of them. But most of us start to slow down around that time. Of course, it is against the law to discriminate against someone because of age, but colleges and universities need active and determined leadership.
After completion of work is another reason. I can think of a fellow president who inherited a university that was running a huge deficit. For 11 years, he worked diligently to transform the institution’s trajectory by increasing enrollment, enhancing fundraising, and revamping the academic program. After that time, he did everything he could and decided to move on. He left while his kidneys were in tip-top shape and is now remembered as a transformational chief. For presidents like himself who have done all they can reasonably do, there is nothing wrong with handing the keys over to someone who can build on their accomplishments and make the college a stronger institution.
The other chiefs decide to leave out of sheer exhaustion, which is happening all too often these days in the wake of a pandemic. I have a friend who became college president just after the Great Recession in 2008. And she immediately had to deal with severe budget challenges. She rebuilt her organization, which is a grueling process, and in 2019, at age 66, she was considering retirement because she felt like she had done all she could, like the boss I just mentioned.
Then came COVID. It was a tough time looking for a new boss, so the chairman asked her to stay on for at least another year or so. In its handling of the pandemic, it has expended an enormous amount of mask imposing New Energy and social distancing mandates, creating online classes, and having to let go of a large number of faculty due to low enrollment. The Foundation is no longer in crisis mode, and recently told me that it will announce its retirement next year.
Except for occasional crises like a pandemic or Great Depression, when it makes sense not to abandon an organization, I have a 10-year rule: Presidents must Normally Serve a particular college and university for a minimum of six years but no more than 10 years, or give or take a year or two.
Presidents who only serve two years—getting the community excited about needed changes and then bailing them out before those changes are implemented—can do irreparable harm to their organization. It takes at least six years—maybe more—to make a big difference, like building a stronger endowment, running a successful capital campaign or upgrading the curriculum. But bosses who serve too long can also cause irreparable damage to their organization, especially if they run out of energy and ideas. The community, including the board of trustees, may expect new leadership.
What are some right and wrong ways for a president to step down?
At the start of my tenth year of my first presidency, after discussing matters with my wife, I made an arguably brave decision: I told the chairman that I had probably done all I could and would leave at the end of my business. Eleventh year. This was a good and bad move. It was bad because I had no clue what to do next. I didn’t have a position, so even if I wanted to, I couldn’t go back to college. Furthermore, with my daughter starting college and a sophomore two years away, I didn’t have job security. I probably would have been better off waiting until I got my next job before announcing that I was planning to step down.
However, my college was given a gift—more than a year to plan the research. Often around December, boards hear that their chairmen are leaving after six months in June, and then they either have to rush into a search or hire a temporary. In my case, the search could begin in the fall of my last academic year, and when my successor is hired in January, I can help with the transition.
Then there is the wrong way to leave. As an advisor, I once researched a university whose president was retiring after a successful 12-year career. If not a transformational president, then for his meritorious college services. He announced his retirement to the community, and plans were underway to celebrate his time in office with an honorary degree upon initiation.
After that, everything got worse. He did not like the board’s selection of his successor, believing that one of the members of his cabinet who had applied for the presidency should have been chosen. He then complained publicly that he had not received a bonus even though it was not in his contract. The result: a fine president who was naturally celebrated and remembered fondly, left his alma mater under a dark cloud.
Needless to say, the outgoing president should not immediately get involved in the search for his successor. This shall be done exclusively by the Board of Directors, with the assistance of a search committee appointed by the Board. The outgoing president only supports a board-led transition.
Furthermore, presidents who have retired or stepped down should re-enroll in the college Just If he invites them behind to do so. For example, if the outgoing president still lives in the district, the new president may want them to serve on a committee. Honestly, I would politely decline the invitation in order to move on. But if the outgoing chair accepts membership of the committee, they need to remember that they are no longer the chair.
Or perhaps the outgoing president has been invited back to campus to speak at an alumni event. They should do it, but do it with humility. A friend who had just become college president told me about inviting her predecessor back on campus as a courtesy to speak briefly at an alumni meet. The former president proceeded to give a 50-minute sermon, as if he had never retired.
Celebration of the late president
There are many ways to recognize an outgoing president who has rendered a meritorious service beyond giving them a hefty retirement bonus, which is not only unnecessary but can also send the wrong message to alumni donors. “Why should I support my struggling university when the board has awarded the outgoing president a $5 million bonus?” is a comment I once heard in such a situation.
Nor is it necessarily a good idea to name a facility for the outgoing president. I discouraged my college from naming a facility after me, feeling that if they did, they would lose the naming opportunity to raise much needed funds. If a donor wants to honor the departing president with a gift to name a facility on campus, that’s one thing. It is quite another for a painting to do without such a fairing.
The board can show its appreciation to the outgoing chairman in more appropriate ways. For example, the outgoing president can be given honorary status and even an honorary degree. Besides being a gracious way to say thank you, doing so sends a general message that the former president acted honorably and did a good job.
The board must respect the president’s partner’s contributions, especially if they are not compensated by the college. When I resigned as Principal of the Moravian College, I was conferred an honorary degree, but, to my complete surprise and delight, so was my wife. My success at Moravia was largely due to her uncompensated dedication to the college by attending or organizing social events and fundraising while holding down a job outside of college and raising our two children. Couples are often the unsung heroes of college prosperity — the behind-the-scenes supporters for their partners. They are often indirectly responsible for large gifts from donors, yet they rarely receive the recognition they deserve.
Finally, the board must invite the former president to all future presidential inaugurations. When a new president is installed, it sends a positive message to see past presidents on the podium. They all contributed in different ways to the Foundation, and though they may have left, their legacy must live on—especially if they leave in some of the positive ways I’ve recommended here.