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June 19, 2012 5:21 PM The Leadership Problem in State Colleges

By Daniel Luzer

Why are so many university presidents leaving?

The University of Virginia fired its president, Teresa Sullivan, last week, unleashing huge protests at UVA that still continue. But she’s not the first public university president to leave recently due to a troublesome relationship with her board.

The leaders of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Illinois, and the University of Oregon have all just left their jobs. The head of the University of California’s Berkeley campus is out in December. Why are these jobs, which administrators used to routinely hold for two decades or more, so difficult?

It’s because public universities have huge funding problems now. This is resulting in existential crises making it very difficult for administrators to serve effectively. The boards demand more cuts. The administrators refuse. And then someone has to go. As Jeremi Suri explains at CNN:

We know an industry is in crisis when its top institutions cannot establish stable leadership. That is the case with some of our nation’s best public universities today.
University leaders are caught in the middle. Governors are impatient for new “efficiencies.” Professors are adamant about protecting the freedom necessary for their work. University presidents have the title to address these issues, but they have little power when funding is tight and the two sides are equally uncompromising. No one wants to acknowledge the legitimacy of the other side’s point of view.

I suspect that this trend is going to continue if cuts don’t abate. One or two presidents leaving might indicate personal trouble between the board and the presidents. But it seems the problem is structural. More than 40 states have cut funding for higher education over the past year. These funding cuts are fundamentally destructive to the nature of the university.

As Sullivan says, despite her board’s enthusiasm for getting rid of German and classics and offering online courses, she thinks UVA is pretty lean already. Universities are going to continue to have leadership problems until they come up with new and dedicated funding streams (and consistent budget expectations). No one now seems to think it’s the time for lavish funding for state universities, but dependable basic funding would be a good way to ensure effective leadership.

That’s probably the best way to fix this problem and preserve the quality of the institutions.

It might be tempting for boards to just go in the other direction, however, and avoid academics would might prove troublesome. Replacing the presidents with yes men corporate types might be a relatively simple way to avoid budget struggles, but it’s not the way to make state universities great again.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer