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Marquette Wire

The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

Pressures of job causing shorter terms for college presidents
Photo by Rebecca Rebholz/ [email protected]

John Ferraro, member of the Board of Trustees and chairman of the presidential search committee, visited campus this week to meet with committee members and sat down for an exclusive interview with the Tribune.

The search committee meeting is another step in the process for Marquette after the resignation of former University President the Rev. Scott Pilarz was suddenly announced Sept. 20. Five days later, former University President the Rev. Robert A. Wild was announced as interim president.

Marquette is not the only university going through this process. Instead, it is only one example of a nationwide trend of university presidents resigning, retiring or being terminated from their jobs, in part because of the demanding evolution of the role.

On Oct. 1, Sidney Ribeau, former university president of Howard University in Washington D.C., also abruptly resigned following a Board of Trustees meeting. Howard students found themselves in a situation similar to the one Marquette students were in just a week before.

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, university president emeritus of George Washington University and author of “Presidencies Derailed: Why University Leaders Fail and How to Prevent It,” said cases of college presidents leaving within two years after their appointments are increasing.

“Presidencies Derailed” identifies 50 college presidents from 2009-10 who left or were forced out of office before the end of their first contract period and the trend seems to be on the rise.

“Some of the presidents resign on their own, others get pushed,”  Trachtenberg said. “Being a college president is a blood sport.”

Trachtenberg said usually when presidents leave, they form a non-disclosure agreement with the university.

“After its over, nobody is allowed to talk,” Trachtenberg said. “It is very hard to extract the details. It’s hard to learn from presidencies, why they failed and how they can be avoided in the future.”

Marquette’s Board of Trustees and Office of Marketing and Communication remained silent following Pilarz’s resignation.

The Tribune called nine members of the Board of Trustees, three of which redirected inquires to Charles Swoboda, the chairman and spokesperson for the board. The Tribune also tried contacting Swoboda directly, leaving multiple voicemails at his home, none of which were returned.

When the Tribune asked the Office of Marketing and Communication several times to set up an interview with Swoboda, all the requests were denied.

“We shared all the information we had regarding Father Pilarz’s resignation, and Father Pilarz also shared his reasons in his letter to the Marquette community,” said Brian Dorrington, senior director of university communication in an email Oct. 14. “The Board of Trustees has been focusing on the presidential transition and the beginning of the search process.”

Maribeth Roman Schmidt, founding partner and president of Vault Communication in Pennsylvania, said schools need to be cautious when dealing with presidential resignations. Schmidt is the spokesperson for Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, a group formed in the wake of the Penn State child sex abuse scandal to promote change within the Penn State Board of Trustees.

“It’s all in the handling of the message,” Schmidt said. “There’s a fine line between sharing enough to let a community feel there is control and not sharing too much.”

She also said the nature of a board of trustees is not conducive to open records.

“You want to demand transparency, but trustees are used to an insular environment,” she said.


Marquette Student Government President Sam Schultz and Executive Vice President Zach Bowman met with Swoboda on Oct. 7 to speak about the presidential search.

During the meeting, Schultz and Bowman asked Swoboda if he would consider adding a student to the presidential search committee, a proposal which Swoboda rejected.

“Swoboda said students may have the best knowledge of what is going on on campus, but not the best knowledge of how to lead a university,” Bowman said.

Swoboda did not give Schultz or Bowman additional details about Pilarz’s resignation or information related to the Board of Trustees meeting in Washington D.C. during which Pilarz said he gave his resignation.

The Tribune also reached out to several vice presidents who were likely present during the Washington D.C. meeting, though they are typically not present during the board meeting’s executive sessions. The vice presidents directed the Tribune’s inquiry to interim provost Margaret Callahan.

“Board of Trustees records at Marquette University and among private institutions across the country are not publicly available, and it is not unusual for any board to adjust its agenda to reflect timely, priority topics,” Callahan said in an email Oct. 23. “The Board of Trustees has many responsibilities to manage when a president announces that he intends to resign.”

Callahan’s office would not confirm how the Board agenda was altered to accommodate discussions concerning Pilarz’s resignation.

But not all universities and presidents stay quiet about presidential departures.

“Sometimes you get people who are either angry or more forthright or whatever the reason is and they want to tell the story and so they do,” Trachtenberg said. “There’s no rule book on this.”

Carl Oxholm III, former President of Arcadia University in Pennsylvania, was ousted as president in March after less than two years on the job. The school’s Board of Trustees voted to terminate Oxholm and remained silent on its reasoning, but Oxholm did not keep quiet.

Instead, he issued a statement to the Philadelphia Inquirer after the meeting about his departure.

“I am very proud of my record accomplishment at Arcadia and surprised and disappointed that I was not allowed to continue in the leadership,” Oxholm said in the statement. “It was without cause, and those who conveyed the decision to me declined to give me any reason or explanation for the decision or the speed of its implementation.”

Oxholm also said he was not able to return to campus.

“I am most sad not to have been able to say goodbye to the students, who were such a huge part of my life and for whom I gave my very best each and every day,” he said in the statement.

Increasing pressure, decreasing tenure

The average length of a college presidency fell from eight and a half years in 2006 to seven years in 2011, according to The American College President 2012 Edition from the American Council on Education.

The study also identifies fundraising as the area presidents feel most insufficiently prepared for during their first presidency followed by risk management, capital improvement, entrepreneurial venture and budgeting, respectively.

“It’s a more stressful job than it used to be and people are discovering that they don’t like it or don’t have the skill set,” Trachtenberg said.

The American Council on Education reported that nearly one-quarter of the more than 1,600 college presidents surveyed said they were unprepared for fundraising.

Pilarz cited fundraising as one of the reasons for his sudden departure in a Sept. 25 letter to students.

“I believe that Marquette needs a president who is willing to commit to working wholeheartedly on a comprehensive capital campaign over a five to seven year period,” Pilarz said in the letter. “I am not in a position to do that now.”

To take the job at Marquette, Pilarz left the University of Scranton, a Division III school with a total enrollment of just more than 6,000 and an academic staff of under 300. The enrollment at Marquette is more than double Scranton’s, the academic staff is more than 1,000 and a Big East athletics culture is a major factor in fundraising efforts.

Some presidents, such as Betsy Hoffman, former University of Colorado-Boulder president, move on to less demanding jobs at smaller schools. Hoffman is now a provost and economics professor at Iowa State University. Martha Saunders, former president of the University of Southern Mississippi, recently left to become provost at the University of West Florida.

“What I miss least is not having any control over my own life,” Saunders told the Associated Press earlier this week.


Ferraro said he is aware of the trends in the search for the 24th president of Marquette.

“The term of office for the president isn’t as important as whether the president leaves the institution better then he or she inherited it,” Ferraro said in an exclusive interview with the Tribune. “That is the most important thing.”

Ferraro acknowledged, though, that it would be beneficial to have a president for the long run, assuming he or she is the right person for the job.

“Naturally, the average term of presidency in higher education is around seven or eight years,” he continued. “It is a blessing to have someone in the role longer. But what’s most important is you don’t want someone in the role a long time if they aren’t leading and adding to the institution, leaving it better than they inherited it.”

Pilarz’s 25 months as Marquette’s president fell short of the national average Ferraro mentioned, which is consistent with The American College President 2012 Edition. Now, the university has to regroup and find a new university president before the August 2014 targeted start for the next presidency.

Ferraro said the timeline for the search is “aggressive but doable,” and he realizes that, with all the responsibilities the job entails, no one candidate will come in “one package.”

“Marquette and higher education is becoming more challenging, more complex,” Ferraro said. “So it is changing, the world is changing. It is much faster pace (with) more challenges, and Marquette is a complex institution.

“So, yes the demands of the job are great,” he continued. “And one of the key things I think, even in the strong provost (model), is to recognize that no one person can do everything.”

Story by Joe Kaiser and Sarah Hauer

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