Hard Times – for Leaders in Higher Education

A couple of weeks ago, the president of Cooper Union, Jamshed Bharucha, announced his resignation. Whatever the circumstances surrounding his particular presidency, the fact is that like other American leaders, in the 21st century leaders of American colleges and universities are having to navigate choppy waters.

In the old days presidents of institutions of higher education were removed from the exigencies of everyday life. They were sheltered by what then was the cloistered nature of the academy, and by the expectation that their leadership would be exercised primarily in the intellectual realm, not in the rough and tumble world that was beyond the ivory tower.

Now though that’s different. Just like other American leaders, leaders of colleges and universities are having to suffer the indignities of being closely scrutinized; are having to cope with constant demands from various constituencies; and are having to immerse themselves in the worlds of cash and commerce from which previously they were exempt.

The numbers tell the tale. In 2012 the average tenure of a leader of an institution of higher education was 7 years. Just six years earlier it was 8.5 years. In the Philadelphia region alone, during the three year period 2011-2014, 16 out of 36 four year colleges and universities saw either the exit or arrival of a new president.

The fact that leaders in higher education are not exempt from the pressures on leaders more generally testifies to the importance of the larger context within which leaders – and their putative followers – are located. The academy is no longer an armor against the larger forces that make leadership in America so difficult now to exercise.


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