Colleges and Universities

How Co-Presidents Could Improve Leadership In Higher Education

February 1, 2018  • Karen Gross

There is no question about it: being a college or university president is hard. And, it is getting harder. These deepening challenges mean the time has come to re-think how we view this critical role in educating the next generation. I believe we need to consider the deployment of a different leadership paradigm for some institutions moving forward: co-presidencies.

This may seem like inviting trouble, but consider these arguments. First, a caveat: this is not a proposal for all institutions; those that are thriving may be willing to consider this as a suitable approach as they consider future presidential succession. Faltering institutions may need a diverse set of skills and find that two people bring more to the table. More “out-of-the-box” institutions may be willing to change their leadership structure.

Presidents are pulled into some of the most difficult life issues people in their communities face.

Why is it important for schools to consider this proposal? Because recent events make it more clear than ever that how we appoint educational leaders and enable their success must change if our institutions are to survive and thrive.

Consider some of the challenges within the campus community, despite the increasing portion of the student population that is aging and non-residential: suicides and student self-mutilation; motor vehicle accidents; minor and major illnesses and injuries; deaths; poor decision-making; risky behavior; anxiety; separation anxiety; divorces, pregnancies and failed relationships. Presidents are pulled into some of the most difficult life issues people in their communities face.

Add to this the campus difficulties that many of us anticipated: declining collegiate admissions; financial aid complexities; debates on the costs of education; complex institutional finances; remarkable technological advances; NCAA athletic demands; workforce readiness needs and the declining belief in the value of the liberal arts.

The most daunting set of challenges may be the newest ones rising in our midst, ones that could change the face of higher education permanently.

Consider, for example: the steadily rising level of campus protests and the repeated collisions these bring with the First Amendment (something prevalent in the 1960’s and early 70’s but seen less frequently until recently); the #MeToo moment that catalyzed sexual harassment into the stratosphere; the surging incivility, misogyny, demeaning rhetoric, fast firings, offensive tweets, and the recently passed tax changes that will impact individuals and educational institutions as early as 2018. Most of us did not have any sense of the magnitude of the person-made and natural disasters that would befall our communities from shootings to fires to floods to mudslides.

These anticipated and unanticipated issues and events make the role of a college or university president near impossible to perform. No one person has broad enough skill to navigate these waters effectively. And there are many different constituencies that a president must deal with in all these situations – each requiring thought and sensitivity and preparation and time.

At one point, I counted 13 groups to whom I owed a serious responsibility as a college president: students, faculty, staff, coaches and alums are just the first tier. There are parents, grandparents, guardians, spouses, and younger and older children of enrolled students. There are community members of all sorts ranging from local businesses to the local medical centers to the K-12 schools in the region. There are the local political officials and elected and appointed state officials and federal government representatives. And yes, there are donors and friends of the college, all requiring time and attention. There are accreditors – regional and programmatic.

Anticipated and unanticipated issues and events make the role of a college or university president near impossible to perform. No one person has broad enough skill to navigate these waters effectively.

Of course, last but certainly not least, are the trustees or the governing boards charged with institutional oversight whether voted into their positions or appointed. The care and feeding of trustees is almost a full-time job, and they deserve a president’s serious attention. Engaged boards demand an executive with a deep understanding of the institution to the board owes a fiduciary duty as well as a one with a keen grasp of the higher education context facing the institution in the present and the future. Boards deserve nothing less.

College presidents are often described as multidisciplinary, an understatement to be sure. Some institutions, in an effort to bring in fiscal and business savvy and sophistication, have hired from outside academe. While there have been some glorious successes, there have been some debacles too. Data also suggest that the usual pipeline to a presidency — being a provost — is drying up because many provosts do aren’t interested in the role. Same for deans. Those who do take these positions are occupying them for increasingly shorter periods of time, and the number of failed presidencies has increased. These lead to remarkable institutional instability and require ramping up the anxiety-hiring process yet again. Indeed, more than half of college presidents report that they plan to serve for less than five years.

It is for all these reasons and others that I think there are enormous benefits to colleges and universities pondering co-presidencies. Co-presidencies are increasingly common in business. In late 2017, Apollo Global Management LP became the most recent example, following the steps of other well-known companies. I get that there are sizable differences (such as culture and mission) between running a business and running a college. But there are vast challenges and leadership demands in all fields. The practice of having co-presidents has been used in Europe for some time. Within the academic sphere, there are several instances of interim co-presidents. (Yes, I appreciate the word “interim.”)

The risks of co-presidencies in any setting are obvious: Who has control? Who makes decisions? What if there are disagreements between the co-presidents? What about jealousies? What about differences in leadership and management style? What about turf wars? What about conflicting visions? What about voice and who speaks for the institution? To whom do people within the institution report? How does the staff deal with mixed messages from the leaders? Where does the buck stop? How do we deal with the inevitable loss of speed and agility that comes with more deliberation at the top? And what about the costs of paying two people as leaders instead of one? And what is the plan for succession if one co-president decides to leave or dies?

I understand these real challenges. Some people compare co-presidencies to the challenges of marriage and child rearing. And divorce. Yes, there are risks. The co-presidents need to have their egos in check, and they need to collaborate with each other and work well with others; they need to be open and nimble and flexible. They need to admit mistakes and not hunt for glory. They need to be committed to the same goals, values and mission. They need to trust each other and support decisions that are not their own. No one wants squabbling or angry leaders. And they should probably have equal compensation though perhaps that amount is less than the salary of one highly paid executive.

If we think of leading like conducting an orchestra, an analogy often used for educational and other leaders, we don’t expect two conductors directing the orchestra at the same time. It would very likely lead the orchestra to be out of sync.

But, picture this: the conductors actually conduct the full orchestra on different days, each enabling the orchestra to play together and sound amazing. Why can’t we see the potential for leaders leading without colliding? It is not as if major institutional policy decisions are “played” every day. The central issues involving a college or university require thought and are not spontaneous utterances.

I see another analogy that may be better suited to co-presidencies: pilots. On every flight (virtually), there are co-pilots. Yes, there is a captain but his/her partner is called a co-pilot. And, they are a team and often they have not even met before a particular flight. They know their tasks; they work together; they problem solve together; they communicate; they collaborate. They each can do the other’s job to a tee. They are responsible for the lives of hundreds of people – together. And if there were a sudden need for an immediate decision and no time to discuss how to act (a rarity I assume), I cannot imagine pilots bickering for long given that their own lives are at stake in addition to the lives of others; I assume one pilot makes the needed choice.

I am not suggesting that search committees or firms find two candidates from a pool, pluck them out and then marry them off as co-presidents. We don’t have the pilot training methods for that. The candidates either have to know each other and/or know the institution that they would be serving well. This would not be a vast pool of candidates (which should diminish people’s panic over this change). It would not be the approach taken by every institution searching for a new leader.

Let’s think of the wide range of decisions actually made by leaders. Not every decision has massive consequences. Small decisions are delegated all the time on campuses. The big strategic decisions are usually ones that require both time and reflection; two people can do that as well or perhaps better than one person. If there is an emergency or a disaster and an immediate decision must be made, perhaps the co-presidents could agree with the Board ahead of time as to who makes that call or the responsible person could change from month to month or year to year.

If an institution were to consider co-presidents, they would have to be interviewed both together and separately. I can see interview teams asking each possible co-president to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of his/her counterpart. And there would need to be opportunities to see them engaging with each other and with others including faculty, staff and students. Trustees too.

So, how would one come up with individuals who could be co-presidents? I think we’d need to change the paradigm for how we search for presidents. I also think there would have to be a shift in how the hiring is done, which should reflect the changing nature of the jobs college/university presidents face.

I can think of at least five people right now with whom I would and could happily serve as a co-president (if I ever considered taking such a position again, another issue altogether). I believe most educators would be able to identify a handful of people with whom they could work well and intimately, without ego problems and with enormous sharing, communication and institutional benefit.

Here’s a description of one such “partner,” designed to foster the imagination of those reflecting seriously on co-presidencies. There was a board chair under whom I served who is now the interim president of a large non-profit and whose wife had been a college president. He got local, regional and federal government. He got navigating different constituencies. He was a businessperson by training with strong financial skills and served on the board of a local bank. He was not risk averse; he understood education and its importance to community well-being. He was remarkably thoughtful and quick on the uptake. He was a first generation student and the equivalent of Pell eligible.

My point is this: no one person in this day and age can have all the skills it takes to be a college or university president. The list is simply too long and too diverse. My shortcomings are plentiful. And, while a leader can surround him or herself with excellent talent and a sensation senior leadership team, ideally in areas in which the leader is not as strong, there is a value to considering a different model: co-leadership. (For the record, if were I ever to consider taking another presidency, I would want to bring in my own team if a co-presidency was not an option; it requires too much time and energy to create a new quality, high functioning senior team, and time especially is something few institutions can afford to spare. There are risks with this suggestion too.)

Here are some of added key reasons I see such value in co-presidencies.  To be clear, as noted, the risks of a co-presidency are known and can be anticipated but as I see it, the upsides in today’s world outweigh the risks.

For starters, a co-presidency sends a loud and clear message about collaboration and cooperation and the busting of silos. An academic could partner with a government or business official. A financially savvy person could partner with someone with vast expertise in student life. It bespeaks taking risks but navigating them well. It is about putting one’s ego in the right place and giving glory to another and sharing blame. It is about, fundamentally, some the very skills we want students to acquire: problem solving, teamwork and decency.

I also think a co-presidency would set an example. It models good behavior in real time. And it role models what we want our students to learn and carry with them into the workforce, their personal lives and their communities: respect for others; valuing deep skills; capacity to solve problems; teamwork; self-awareness including with regard to that which one does not know or do exceptionally well; willingness to try new ideas and explore new territory thoughtfully and with keen understanding for the risks and benefits. And, it highlights some truths about the real world: the problems we face are complex and the need to ask for and receive help isn’t a sign of weakness but rather a sign of strength.

So, in hiring co-presidents, perhaps we are creating a gift to students, faculty and staff and coaches and institutions: a new paradigm, which will enable some institutions to flourish in ways that serve multiple goals. Perhaps that is doable because there will be multiple leaders — co-presidents in every sense.

Co-presidencies could be the wave of the future. It would take some courageous Board members, faculty members, staff members and candidates to see their way clear to test this out. Courageous alums too.

It would take a search firm that breaks molds and gets the need for changes in how we think about and hire college presidents. To be sure, search firms are not generally known for the latter. Perhaps they could be persuaded.

Co-presidencies are not toys of the moment; there are rich examples and case studies that can be evaluated. I see co-presidencies at this point in time as enabling key educational institutions in American culture to be lead with expertise, grace, equanimity, talent and collaboration. This approach is reflective of how many decisions are needed and how many are ones that can be shared. To be sure, co-presidencies are not required at every institution or with every leadership change. But for some institutions, at particular periods in their history, co-presidencies look like a serious positive to me.

And perhaps, just perhaps, there are added upsides to co-presidencies that we do not yet know about or cannot anticipate. How powerful is that? I, for one, believe in being open to the power of the possible.

Karen Gross is a consultant and former college president.