Shorter tenure, higher turnover among college presidents

Haverford College president Daniel H. Weiss listens to student Emily McKinstry explain her research. Weiss started this month, 14 months after he accepted the job.
Haverford College president Daniel H. Weiss listens to student Emily McKinstry explain her research. Weiss started this month, 14 months after he accepted the job. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 12, 2013

Daniel H. Weiss stepped into the presidency at Haverford College this month - a full 14 months after accepting the job.

The Main Line liberal arts school agreed to wait longer than usual so Weiss could finish his eight-year tenure at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., on good terms; Lafayette will name a theater after Weiss and his wife.

"It's nice to go out in a way in which people are pleased with the work accomplished," said Weiss, an art-history scholar.

In the Philadelphia region, several presidential departures in recent months, including those at Arcadia University and Bryn Mawr and Cabrini Colleges, have been much more abrupt and in some cases less collegial.

Arcadia's president, Carl "Tobey" Oxholm III, was fired, while Bryn Mawr and Cabrini both announced that their presidents would leave after only five years each at the helm. At Bryn Mawr, Jane McAuliffe's tenure was the shortest in the women's college's history.

Those surprise exits, coupled with a spurt in presidents reaching retirement age or moving to new posts, have led to a high turnover in presidencies in the Philadelphia region.

Over three years, from July 2011 through June 2014, 16 of 36 four-year colleges and universities will have seen the exit or arrival of a president.

In Pennsylvania, the number is also up. Seventeen of 88 private four-year colleges represented by the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania will have a new or interim president this year alone, said Don Francis, association president.

"It's the biggest turnover I've seen in one year since I've been here, and that's 1991," said Francis, noting that the average number of such turnovers is six to eight per year.

He said low turnover occurred during the recession, probably because boards encouraged leaders to stay and some presidents postponed retirement because of concern over their financial portfolios.

"Some of this is pent-up demand let loose," he said.

Other reasons?

Presidents are aging. And the job is becoming much more complex, given financial pressures and the competitive landscape.

"We are experiencing as a nation the graying of the presidency," said Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, a higher education group.

A quarter of a century ago, the average age of presidents was 48; today's it's 61, she said.

In addition, many states are cutting higher education funding, while students and their families struggle to pay increasing tuition bills, she said. Add technological advances such as the swell in Massive Open Online Courses and greater expectations for universities to respond to the job market.

The average tenure of a college president, according to a 2012 council report, was seven years, down from 8.5 in 2006. In addition to Arcadia, Cabrini, and Bryn Mawr, several other schools had shorter presidential tenures in recent years. Ann Weaver Hart left Temple University after six years. Stephen G. Emerson departed Haverford after only four.

At Rutgers University, the honeymoon period was short for Robert L. Barchi. He was on the job seven months when the basketball coach was ousted after a video showed him shoving players, throwing basketballs at them, and using slurs. The athletic director also lost his job. The school came under criticism again after it hired a new athletic director with allegations of player abuse in her past.

Some faculty called for Barchi's resignation, but the board of governors and political leaders backed him.

Arcadia's board has declined for months to say why it dismissed Oxholm. Christopher van de Velde, the new chair of Arcadia's board, offered some insight this week.

"Tobey's a very bright guy. He's got a lot of energy and talent. It just wasn't a good fit," said van de Velde, general manager at the Awbury Arboretum in Germantown.

Lucy A. Leske of Witt/Kieffer, an executive search firm in Chicago, cited heightened scrutiny of college leaders.

"In the old days, boards would let leaders get away with a lot more," she said. "They were more forgiving. . . . There's no tolerance for mistakes now. You have to fall on your sword or quit."

Faculty unions increasingly are taking no-confidence votes in presidents, though some, including New York University's John Sexton, have weathered the criticism.

In decades past, presidential tenures were a lot longer. Two presidents at Bryn Mawr College, for example, held the position for 271/2 years each, the most recent of the two ending in 1970.

Some recent presidential departures in the Philadelphia area were routine and came after a decade or more of service. Bobby Fong started at Ursinus College in July 2011 after John Strassburger, who has since died, served 16 years.

Pennsylvania State University, Lincoln University, Moore College of Art and Design, the University of the Sciences, Rowan University, Princeton University, Rutgers and Eastern University all had presidents who served more than a decade.

Several presidents continue lengthy tenures, including Sister Francesca Onley, who has led Holy Family University in Northeast Philadelphia since 1981, and Sister Carol Jean Vale, at Chestnut Hill College since 1992.

At the University of Pennsylvania - the largest private employer in Philadelphia, with its 12 schools and a health system - Amy Gutmann has started her 10th year and has a contract through 2019.

"At Penn, we're blessed with a board that not only cares about the university but shares my vision and goals for the university," Gutmann said. "It's their vision and their goals as well, and that makes a huge difference."

Gutmann has shown that she will respond to criticism when she deems it valid. Most recently, after complaints that her cabinet was largely white, Guttman appointed a black female law school professor as vice provost of faculty.

"I definitely want to be responsive to that because I agree with it," she said. "I agree that we should be a model of excellence and diversity at every level."

James T. Harris III has led Widener University in Chester for 12 years. He also attributes his success in part to trustees who understand their role as a governing board.

"A board needs to recognize that no individual member has any authority. The board as a whole has all the authority," said Harris, whose contract runs to 2017.

Luck plays a role, too.

"We've been fortunate in that things have gone our way in some difficult situations," he said.

At Haverford, Weiss said he was meeting and listening to everyone in the college community so that he can develop a path that students, staff, alumni and the board can embrace and share - critical to success, according to experts.

He also will prepare to represent Haverford in the larger world.

"There's much greater skepticism about the role of higher education," Weiss said. "A president must do a much better job of advocating for the value of the institution than in the past. Twenty years ago, it was a given."

Presidential Terms at Area Schools

A look at presidential tenures at four-year colleges in the Philadelphia area, with the year each took over.

Sister Francesca Onley, Holy Family University, 1981.

Sister Carol Jean Vale, Chestnut Hill College, 1992.

Rosalie Mirenda, Neumann University, 1996.

*Michael J. McGinniss (a Christian brother), La Salle University, 1999.

Sister R. Patricia Fadden, Immaculata University, 2002.

James T. Harris III, Widener University, 2002.

Kathleen Owens, Gwynedd-Mercy College, 2002.

Amy Gutmann, University of Pennsylvania, 2004.

Sharon Latchaw Hirsh, Rosemont College, 2006.

The Rev. Peter M. Donohue, Villanova University, 2006.

Stephen Spinelli Jr., Philadelphia University, 2007.

Sean T. Buffington, University of the Arts, 2007.

Joseph S. Brosnan, Delaware Valley College, 2007.

Michelle R. Howard-Vital, Cheyney University, 2007.

Patrick T. Harker, University of Delaware, 2007.

Todd J. Williams, Cairn University, 2008.

Greg R. Weisenstein, West Chester University, 2009.

Rebecca Chopp, Swarthmore College, 2009.

James Mergiotti, Peirce College, 2009.

John A. Fry, Drexel University, 2010.

Kristin King, Bryn Athyn College, 2011.

Bobby Fong, Ursinus College, 2011.

**Rodney Erickson, Pennsylvania State University, 2011.

The Rev. C. Kevin Gillespie, St. Joseph's University, 2012.

Cecelia FitzGibbons, Moore College of Art and Design, 2012.

Robert R. Jennings, Lincoln University, 2012.

Helen Giles-Gee, University of the Sciences, 2012.

Ali Houshmand, Rowan University, 2012.

Robert L. Barchi, Rutgers University, 2012.

Neil D. Theobald, Temple University, January.

Daniel H. Weiss, Haverford College, July 1.

Robert G. Duffett, Eastern University, July 1.

Christopher L. Eisgruber, Princeton University, July 1.

Bryn Mawr and Cabrini Colleges have interim presidents, and Arcadia University has a chief operating officer.

* McGinniss has announced he will leave May 31.

** Erickson will leave by June 30, 2014, or earlier if a successor is appointed.

Contact Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or or follow on Twitter @ssnyderinq. Read her blog at

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