The Dark Spots on the Ivory Tower

Leaders in higher education are facing more scrutiny, higher stress and lower job security.

On the surface, it sounds like an ideal job. Your customers include bright, motivated young people and your workforce includes some of the smartest people around. Plus, the perks usually are pretty good; a six-figure salary, a house to live in and free tickets to the nearby shows and sports events.

But lately, being president of a college or university has been anything but easy. The people assuming the available president spots at Harvard, San Diego State and other colleges likely will face a change-resistant faculty, too many demands on their time, on-campus political activism not seen since the 1960s and, for leaders at state schools, budget cuts. “For leadership, it has become a very complicated job,” says Paul Chou, co-managing director, global education practice at Korn Ferry.

And now add a new problem: a big group of Americans think universities are hurting the country. According to a recent poll, nearly 60 percent of Republicans and conservative-leaning independents view college as having a negative influence on America. That’s a dramatic shift from not even two years ago, when more than half of Republicans thought colleges were good for the U.S. (For their part, 75 percent of Democrats and liberal-leaning independents still say America’s institutions of higher learning have a positive impact.)

Just like that of CEOs, the average university president tenure is shrinking. The American Council on Education reports that the average university president stayed in their job 6.5 years in 2016, down a full 2 years from a decade ago. The Washington Post summed up the security of higher education leaders in a blunt headline: “The Job Nobody Can Seem to Keep: College President.”

Experts say that university presidents now need a different traits and experiences than they did even just a few years ago. Before, many presidents got promoted because of their records of scholarly achievement. Now presidents have to have a diverse background in managing complexity, Chou says. “They need to be capable at managing governance and persuading the board, faculty, and general public of their strategy, and have access to networks of powerful people who can make it happen.”

More than ever, university presidents are being asked to prove to skeptical stakeholders that a degree is worth the time and money. On average, last year’s seniors graduated with just over $37,000 in student loan debt. At the same time, the complex job market means people are judging higher education more on its capacity for economic as opposed to intellectual development. Presidents are being asked whether the university is creating jobs, developing new innovations and competing on the intellectual world stage. Higher education leaders who aren’t stoking this growth and building the brand, reputation and endowment of the institution will continue to struggle to generate distinct value.

Ironically, the skills university leaders need to be successful now are often the same skills traditionally learned at college—complex problem solving, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, cognitive flexibility, people management and collaborating with others among them.