University President Terms Getting Shorter

Jackson State University President Carolyn Meyers becomes the latest university president to leave prematurely. She announced her resignation following disclosure of financial problems at the university.

Once university presidents seemed to hold office forever. As a new Kirk Fordice appointee to the IHL Board in 1992, I was awed by the tenure of Walter Washington, 25 years as president at Alcorn State University, Kent Wyatt, 24 years at Delta State University, and Aubrey Lucas, 21 years at the University of Southern Mississippi after four years at Delta State.

Their tenures as presidents were not uncommon. Jacob Reddix served 27 years at Jackson State University, Charles Hogarth 25 years at Mississippi University for Women, John Davis Williams 22 years at the University of Mississippi, and James Herbert White 21 years at Mississippi Valley State University.

When these stalwarts began to retire, presidential tenures started to decline. Robert Khayat served 14 years at Ole Miss, Don Zacharias 12 years at MSU, Clyda Rent 12 years at MUW, Clinton Bristow 11 years at ASU, William Sutton 10 years at MVSU, Ron Mason 10 years at JSU, and John Hilpert 10 years at DSU.

Meyers made it almost six years at JSU as did Dan Jones at Ole Miss. Other recent terms were shorter, Chris Brown and George Ross two years at ASU; Robert Foglesong two years at MSU; David Potter three years at DSU; Charles Lee four years at MSU and Horace Fleming four years at USM; and Martha Saunders and Shelby Thames five years at USM.

For the most part, the shorter the tenure the more issues with the performance of the president.

What happened?  No one thing, but a confluence of things. The presidents’ jobs got more complex and demanding, particularly as fund-raising, political maneuvering, schmoozing, and board involvement became 24/7 demands.

In the old days, presidents were like kings with minimum board oversight. The whispered maxim of the extraordinary Walter Washington was “my way or the highway.” As society became more egalitarian, authoritarian leadership became less acceptable to faculty, students, and alumni. The IHL Board began to seek other qualities in candidates.

At the same time, governors began appointing more diverse individuals, some with agendas, to the board, making the board less like-minded about candidates.

National search firms became entrenched. Even in cases where strong internal candidates existed, search firms were hired to give the appearance seeking the best candidate. The board began to rely on these firms for recruitment, vetting, and ranking candidates. Presidential resumes became more important. What happened was search firms would attract excellent resumes but not always terrific candidates.

Then there was the growing influence of donors, alumni, faculty, and politicians as presidential search committees became more representative of different interests and more involved in the board’s selection process. Their favorites were not always the best choices.

Finally, it’s just hard to pick good presidents and even harder to be a good president over time.

Meanwhile, all eyes will be on JSU’s search.

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