(Photography by Brian Baiamonte: Louisiana Commissioner of Higher Education Joe Rallo)
The revolving door, island hoping, career advancement—all are phrases used to describe a trend in frequent turnover among top leadership at Louisiana universities.
Over the past two years, almost 20% of the state’s private colleges experienced a change in chancellor or president, while nearly 25% of Louisiana’s 32 public institutions took on new top leadership, a Business Report analysis of staffing indicates.
National experts say these numbers aren’t unique to Louisiana and are indicative of larger shifts happening in the higher education talent pool. However, they can be troubling as frequent changes in leadership cause turbulence to ripple through a university’s system.
Approximately 92% of presidents and provosts across the country are between their late 50s and mid 70s, explains Jan Greenwood, a partner and co-owner of Greenwood/Asher & Associates, Inc., a national executive search firm that has conducted numerous searches for LSU.
Greenwood explains that among both private and public universities, nationwide, a bump in retirements is leading to high turnover.
In her 23 years in the executive search business, Greenwood has witnessed the shift occur. At the start of her career, one presidential search she conducted attracted 160 candidates. Today, she feels fortunate to be able to produce six.
She expects the cycle of turnover to continue for the next 10 to 15 years as current leaders continue to retire and a new crop of experienced executives moves up.
THE COST OF CUTS
Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, the accrediting body for Louisiana colleges and universities, attributes some of the turnover to the retirement of baby boomers, but also acknowledges that budget cuts, the ever-changing desires of board members and political complexities of the job cannot be discounted.
Consider that the years 2008 to 2010 was a period marking the highest cuts to higher education in the Louisiana’s history, peaking at $1.13 billion in 2009. During that same period, 31% of public universities experienced a turnover in top leadership.
Michael Martin, who served as LSU’s chancellor from August of 2008 to July of 2012, says the budget issues over the years take a toll on a leader’s effectiveness in numerous ways.
“You sort of get to the point where you say, ‘I’ve run out of ideas with what to do about this,’” Martin explains. “‘Maybe the institution needs someone with a fresh view on how to cope with the continual budget stress.’ You spend a lot of time lying awake at night trying to figure out what to do next.”
Joe Rallo, Louisiana’s commissioner of higher education, says that throughout his career, he has witnessed the job description of university presidents change, impacting how satisfying the job might be for the administrator holding it.
Before being named commissioner, Rallo had held administrative and executive roles in the Texas Tech University System since 2007. Prior to that he served provost and academic vice president at Western Illinois University and was dean of the College of Business and Administration and the Graduate School of Business Administration at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. Rallo is also a retired Air Force colonel and previously served as an intelligence officer in the Navy.
“Presidencies used to be a leadership position where you were able to interact with faculty and really work with students, but now—and I know having been one—probably 80% of your time is spent on fundraising,” Rallo explains. “It burns you out, quite frankly, after a while and that is why you have a lot of movement.”
Reflecting on the factors that influenced each of his own career advancements, Rallo says some of the biggest considerations of a new position include evaluating the potential quality of life, whether you might be a match for a community’s culture and how you think you can make an impact.
For Rallo, the budget situations can be taxing, but they are part of the job.
“Everyone is aware of that, but if you look at the individuals who have come to the state, including myself, we always knew there were budget issues out there,” he says. “Maybe Louisiana is in a more precarious position, but everyone in [public universities] has gone through these issues over the years so when you look at an individual who wants a presidency or wants a provost position, they are really doing it because it is part of their professional aspirations and professional goals.”
WHEN TO BOW OUT
In addition to managing a budget constantly under threat, Martin says one of the major factors that influenced his decision to leave LSU in 2012 to become chancellor of the Colorado State University System was turnover within his own team.
“In my own case, we were losing people whom I genuinely enjoyed working with,” Martin says. “A really good number of folks, both for career reasons and for fatigue reasons, moved on and it was kind of a revolving door within the team I worked hard to build.”
He says he also recognized he was approaching the end of his career and found the position of being a system leader, as opposed to a campus leader, interesting. During his time as chancellor of the Colorado State University System, Martin was considered for the presidency at Florida State University and was also approached about a system leadership position in Nebraska.
“I looked in the mirror one day and said, ‘If you are going to do a halfway decent job, you need to know that you can make a keep a commitment of no less than five years.’ I could probably show up every day and turn the wheel, but could I bring the kind of energy and commitment that any university needs?”
Now 68, Martin says it’s been a difficult realization as he’s gotten older, and ultimately led him to the decision to step down as chancellor in March, transitioning into the role of part-time chancellor emeritus and senior fellow at Colorado State.
Louisiana Community and Technical College System President Monty Sullivan has served in six different colleges and in two state community and technical college systems over the last two decades. Prior to being selected as LCTC president, he served as chancellor of Delgado Community College in New Orleans for two years.
Throughout his career, Sullivan says he’s learned that leaders need to constantly be aware of their progress and the direction of their institution, and evaluate how they fit into the long-term plan over a period of time. He doesn’t believe there is a specific number of years a leader must govern to accomplish his or her goals.
“You should be able to know your institution and your circumstance well enough to know when that time comes,” Sullivan says.
THE TURNOVER CYCLE
Despite the many causes of turnover, one troubling reality for the entire higher education community is the upheaval or policy disconnect the turnover cycle creates for these institutions.
Greenwood says it is not so much a problem as it is a challenge to determine how to navigate an increasingly unstable leadership environment.
“There are very few institutions in society that have the longevity of academic institutions,” notes Tulane President Michael Fitts. “That longevity gives us the ability to think long-term about the decisions we have to make.”
Fitts arrived at Tulane in 2014 after spending 14 years as the dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
He points out that if a university president leaves every two to three years, an institution looses that long-term perspective. “So that I think is the main concern about rapid turnover of presidents in higher education; it takes away the ability of these treasures, these institutions that are part of our society, to think and act long-term.”
Wheelan says one solution to the gap in the talent pipeline is for universities to foster formalized leadership programs in higher education. “I think it is still going to come down to leaders who are currently employed grooming successors,” she says. “More and more boards are asking CEO’s to come up with succession plans so that there is someone within the institution familiar with the mission and vision and the people and the program offerings.”
For now, the state’s flagship university seems to be set with stable leadership after a decade long period of reorganization and shifts in leadership.
While the university is still in search of a provost to fill the vacant shoes left by Stuart Bell, who left LSU this summer to assume the role of president at the University of Alabama, LSU Board of Supervisors member Ann Duplessis says the LSU Board of Supervisors unanimously agreed to extend LSU President and Chancellor F. King Alexander’s contract through 2020, which it will formally approve at its October meeting.
However, Martin says that in his experience in higher education, one can never get too comfortable. He has watched the turnover accelerate in recent years and says it usually comes as the result of some period of chaos. “Those things aren’t in the best interest of the institution, but I think it is so easy now, because you are so politically and publicly exposed, for one or two events to really cause some serious disequilibrium,” Martin says.
Between managing political relationships with faculty, with boards or with state governors, the job is one that must be navigated carefully.
Says Martin: “It has gotten to be a job where you should probably always be wearing a pair of shoes, because you may have to go out the door.”
Director of Research Sierra Crump contributed to this report.