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Presidencies Derailed

By Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, Gerald Kauvar and E. Grady Bogue

(Johns Hopkins University Press, 163 pages, $36.55)

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It seems much easier to pick a pope than a university president. Certainly it takes much longer to come up with a university chieftain. And if the number of people involved in the search committee is not quite as large as the College of Cardinals, it is certainly too large for comfort – and far more diverse and demanding. It gets even more complicated when the new leader arrives in the president's office, with a mission and a host of constituencies to please, many of them with the power to unseat him or her.

Most university leaders are successful, and some continue for several terms. But others get derailed even before the first term is completed. Those are the subject of an insightful new book by two who have held the post at U.S. schools: Stephen Joel Trachtenberg and E. Grady Bogue; and a professor of public policy, Gerald Kauvar.

Although the details of derailed presidencies are usually cloaked in secrecy, the authors take us inside a number of examples by camouflaging the actual institutions and leaders, but getting off-the record accounts of what happened.

"Derailment has a small number of causes and a large number of effects," they conclude. They delineate six factors that cover the various cases they studied. In most, more than one element arose:

1. Ethical lapses

Presidents can sometimes do the dumbest things. The authors cite some examples that hit the news media, including that of Althea Collins, former president of Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C., who hired her husband and daughter in well-paying, highly visible leadership roles; and Denice Denton, a former chancellor of the University of California, Santa Cruz, who spent $30,000 of public money to build a dog run at her university-supplied home.

The authors offer evidence from their case studies, including one president who had an in-office relationship that was unethical and ultimately corrupt, and one who accepted large gifts from corporations. "Once a wrongful act is discovered, a second unhappy cost is incurred. Excuses, damage control and sometimes legal proceedings distract the leader from his or her appointed function and cost money that could otherwise be used for productive purposes," they write.

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2. Poor interpersonal skills

Some university leaders are surprisingly inept when it comes to interpersonal skills, even though they have been chosen for a job that involves spending each day interacting with an array of diverse people. Some derailed presidents were aloof and egotistical, while others were stubborn and intimidating. Explosive tempers brought others down.

3. Inability to lead key constituencies

Almost half the derailed presidents fumbled in building and leading a strong, cohesive group of senior staff to support their administration. Others fostered schisms in their senior team, while some hired people without the right expertise for an academic institution. The case studies are filled with examples of failing to develop constructive working relationships with faculty, with the political figures overseeing universities, and with the board of trustees.

4. Difficulty adapting

New presidents require adjustments since less than one-third have previously served in that capacity at another institution. Some have never served in an academic administrative post, having been drawn from other fields. Whatever their experience, they must adjust to a new institution with its own personalities, culture, and intrigues. Some find themselves too conservative or too progressive for the campus; others can't get attuned to the faculty or board. And those whose predecessor was popular faced a unique, and sometimes insurmountable, challenge.

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5. Failure to meet goals

One university president ran up a sizable deficit, another faced large budget overruns, and a third fell short of fundraising goals. Failing to meet organizational objectives, of course, will derail most leaders.

6. Board shortcomings

Some university boards meddle, some are split by schisms that can be perilous for the new leader, and some board members have conflicts of interest that can be explosive. Most of the boards in the case studies failed to carry out their duties as well as might have been expected.

The book offers many examples of each of those deficiencies. It also offers advice to university leaders on how to avert a train wreck, starting with the search process itself. The suggestions aren't startling – just good management and recruitment procedures – but the tales the authors have accumulated show they are often what is missing.


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Here are some recent books that might help improve your use of social media:

Klout Matters (McGraw-Hill, 221 pages, $18.95) by consultant Gina Carr and business coach Terry Brock shows how to build credibility and digital influence.

Maximize Your Social (John Wiley, 216 pages, $30) by consultant Neal Schaffer bills itself as a one-stop guide to building a social media strategy.

Instagram Power (McGraw-Hill, 232 pages, $20.95) by Jason Miles promises a picture-perfect strategy for using one of the hottest social media sites.

The Social Media Side Door (McGraw-Hill, 245 pages, $22.95) by strategist Ian Greenleigh shows how to bypass the gatekeepers to get your message out.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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