As Iowa State University installs a president and the University of Northern Iowa starts a search for a new leader, a recent national study shows college presidents are getting older and staying for shorter tenures in their jobs.
The shorter stays are likely due in part to growing external pressures, spurred in recent years by state budget cuts to public higher education, more calls for reform or change from legislators and increased expectations for more fundraising, presidents at Iowa’s public universities and the head of the state Board of Regents said.
“I think the job gets more challenging every year,” said UNI President Ben Allen, who, in his sixth year, is the most-senior of the leaders at Iowa’s three state universities.
Growing competition to attract students, increasing budget pressures and expectations from the outside for more accountability are some of the major stressors, Allen said. The outside world may demand change in a certain way, and faculty may see the path differently, he said. UNI last spring went through a tumultuous process of budget and program cuts.
“It’s more effort you have to spend just to make those two forces match up,” said Allen, 65, who announced last month he will retire by next summer.
Most presidents are still struggling with the aftermath of the economic recession, and fundraising has become a much bigger part of the job, especially at public universities, University of Iowa President Sally Mason said. That’s especially true at the UI, she said, where the economic recession was coupled with the 2008 flood, which caused an estimated $1 billion in university damage.
Mason spends at least 50 percent of her time on fundraising and building relationships with alumni and donors, she said, but it’s something she enjoys. The UI has raised about $900 million during her five-year tenure, Mason said.
The real cause behind shortened presidential tenures in recent years, Mason believes, is often politics or wildly differing views between presidents and governing boards about where an institution should be headed and how it should get there.
“I think probably the biggest thing presidents are dealing with these days is responding to market changes or things happening in our environment so much faster than we ever have in the past,” Mason, 62, said.
In a January survey by Inside Higher Ed, public university presidents ranked declines in state support as the top challenge facing their institutions over the next two to three years. Budget shortfalls tied for third among that group of presidents.
From 2006 to 2011, the average tenure of a university president declined from 8.5 years to seven years, according to a survey conducted every five years by the American Council on Education. In the meantime, the average age of presidents continues to climb. In 2011 it was 61, up from 60 in the 2006 study, and from 52 in the 1986 survey, meaning universities likely face a wave of retirements in the coming years.
Iowa’s state Board of Regents in recent years added deferred compensation for the presidents at the UI, ISU and UNI, as incentive to keep leaders longer, regents President Craig Lang said.
Beyond financial carrots, the board also wants to provide an environment that entices presidents to remain, Lang said. The regents can do that by building good relationships with legislators and state leaders, so presidents can count on steady financial support, he said.
“I’m not surprised that the length of time served is shorter because I think the reduction in state funding across the country has led to some … real difficulty,” he said. “It’s just not as easy a position as it might have been 20 years ago, because of all these external roles, too.”
The regents also believe longevity is helped by choosing a president whose strengths match up well with the institution, Lang said. In the recent hiring of Steven Leath at ISU, for example, they wanted someone knowledgeable about bioeconomy, research transfer and commercializing intellectual property. In the search for Allen’s successor at UNI, strength in prekindergarten through 12 education will be a consideration, Lang said.
Gary Fethke, a former dean of the UI Tippie College of Business who served as interim president for a year before Mason was hired, wrote in July in the Chronicle of Higher Education that the high turnover of university presidents, while alarming, should not be surprising, given the decline in state funding to public education from 1986 to 2011 and the increasing pressure on public universities to enroll more students. Some recent high-profile president departures or near-oustings, such as those at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Illinois and the University of Virginia, reflect a governance structure that is poorly designed for the current challenging environment, Fethke wrote in the Chronicle piece, which he co-authored with a University of California-Irvine administrator.
“Presidents find themselves sandwiched between state legislatures and governing boards demanding significant shifts in how the university operates, and faculty senates defending an academic culture that is both resilient and excruciatingly resistant to change,” they wrote.
Having a supportive governing board that provides leadership without dictating or micromanaging is a big incentive for presidents to stay put, both Mason and Allen said, and Allen said the backing of the regents was meaningful to him last spring during the cuts at UNI.
The kind of challenges that Allen said keep him up at night — how to grow enrollment, how to position UNI for the future, how to deal with state cuts — are stressors that do impact a president’s health and probably lead to shorter tenures in the job, he believes.
Seeing many of her peers retire doesn’t bother Mason or spur her to think more about it for herself, but Mason said she is bothered by situations like those at Wisconsin and Virginia, where a good leader is “so discouraged that they feel they have to move on.”
“These are tough jobs,” she said. “It’s a partnership, and if you lose sight of that it can become very challenging and demoralizing.”