Being a university president is a demanding, exhausting job at any time, involving service to multiple constituencies with competing – sometimes mutually exclusive – interests. But 2020 will go down as a year that’s been historically hard for university presidents. They’ve been called upon to cope with an unprecedented public health crisis, plunging revenue, frighting budget deficits, campus protests over racial injustices, and a highly polarized political environment surrounding the upcoming national election.
Although most presidents have adroitly steered their institutions through this remarkable confluence of conflicts and challenges, others have not fared as well, coming under intense criticism that ranges from angry campuses and suspicious local communities to votes of no confidence and even several high-profile terminations, retirements or resignations.
Dozens of campus chief executives have recently announced they’ll be retiring from their posts in the upcoming year. And the list of highly prominent presidents who’ve already been forced out of their jobs or indicated they’re stepping down is stunning. Beyond the typical annual churn of campus leaders, this year has seen several unusual and unanticipated departures.
Call the roll. Jerry Falwell, Jr. out at Liberty University. Bruce Harreld suddenly ending his tenure at the University of Iowa. And Jay Golden, stepping down under questionable circumstances after less than one year as President of Wichita State University.
Add to those departures several other well-publicized presidential failures, flip-flops, and fumbles related to the major issues of the day. A vote of no confidence in University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel. Widespread objections to the high-handedness of the University of Missouri’s Mun Choi as he responded to social media complaints over his performance. Critcisms of Notre Dame University’s John Jenkins, who was diagnosed with Covid-19 after being photographed not wearing a mask or maintaining social distance at the White House ceremony for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett. Confoundment over Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber’s awkward, if not legally consequential, admission of systemic racism at his institution. And backlash to Northwestern’s Morton Schapiro’s abrupt responses to the pandemic, forcing him to make a public apology.
Although the dynamics are unique to each situation and in some cases are in dispute, most involved some combination of the following: a mismanaged response to the pandemic, a faulty approach to reducing the budget, an entanglement in intense political partisanship, or a failure to recognize and constructively engage concerns about racial injustice.
The successes and the failures of university administrators over the course of the year point to three basic, but essential, lessons college leaders should learn and remember when they face the inevitable crises of the future.
Lesson 1: Listen a lot and communicate more.
Presidents who managed their campuses most effectively have actively and regularly solicited the opinions of faculty, students, staff and their local communities before making crucial decisions about campus re-openings and budgets. They listened early in order to lead later.
They then communicated often, with messages that were direct, personal and compassionate. They highlighted – rather than hid – the problems to be addressed. They stated how people could help their campus cope with various threats, and they clearly outlined the preparations being put in place by the institution.
They didn’t instruct subordinates. They enlisted allies. And their communications frequently had a comforting tone, conveying a kindness and sympathy that are not standard qualities in administrator messages.
The pandemic and its resulting deep budget holes also posed a tough test for shared governance, higher education’s ideal of informed and collaborative decision making. University presidents who passed this test encouraged early and repeated faculty and staff input as well as student involvement. Those who flunked the test acted first and then often had to fend off or fight back campus resentment.
Lesson 2: Develop contingency plans and be willing to use them.
The presidents who’ve been most successful guiding their schools through this year’s turbulence have been those who had several contingency plans drawn up to cover the various crises so they were able to shift gears when necessary. They drafted different budgets reflecting increasing levels of austerity that might be necessary. They prepared alternative scenarios for how instruction would be delivered and how campus density would be adjusted depending on the severity of infection on campus. And in many instances, they made public the thresholds that would be used to trigger a shift in plans.
Making multiple plans they were willing to implement when needed enabled campus administrators to inspire confidence in their ability to lead. It was a source of reassurance, helping convince faculty their advice would be taken seriously and persuading students their safety would be a priority.
Lesson 3: Be consistent in words and actions.
The most successful leaders understood the importance of matching word and deed. When tough budget cuts were necessary, they made sure to reduce their salary first. If students demonstrated for social justice, many presidents joined the marches. When they imposed safety protocols on students and staff, they scrupulously observed them themselves. If they insisted that masks be worn at all times in public, they were careful to always do the same.
What’s so striking about these principles is how obviously basic and well-recognized each of them is. They are simple, time-tested rules for effective leadership at any time. But during a crisis, or the series of severe challenges so relentlessly posed during 2020, these three fundamentals of good leadership came even more strongly to the fore. Listen in order to lead. Make plans but stay flexible. Practice what you preach.
And then get ready for 2021.