Photo: Bruce Palmer/FSU
Former FSU President John Thrasher, left, greets his replacement, Richard McCullough, who took over last August. Thrasher spent nearly seven years at the helm.
Higher Education: Presidents
Florida University presidents are staying half as long as they used to
At Florida's public institutions, retirements, stress and the occasional controversy have contributed to the churn.
Four or five decades ago, most university presidents stayed for the long haul, and it wasn’t unusual for a president to serve more than 10 to 20 years. These days, the average length of stay is about six years at public institutions and seven years at private universities — and the exodus appears to have sped up since COVID.
“Many of the ones that we work with on a regular basis were looking toward a longer horizon to stay as president, and since COVID, quite a few have decided that they have done enough and it’s time for someone else to come in as president,” says Jan Greenwood, co-founder of Greenwood/Asher & Associates, a higher education executive search firm headquartered in Miramar Beach. “If you’ve looked around the country, including in Florida, of course, you would see a number are stepping down earlier than those presidents thought they’d planned to, but they’re doing it because of their own need to shift emphasis at this point in their career.”
At Florida’s 12 public universities, eight presidencies have changed or will be changing hands in less than three years. Steve Currall, former president of the University of South Florida, cited the pandemic as one of several issues that strained his health and led to his decision to exit after just two years on the job. Greenwood, whose firm recruited Currall leading to his hiring in 2019, notes that it’s generally difficult for a new president to succeed following on the heels of long-tenured, successful presidents, such as Judy Genshaft, who led USF for 19 years. “The University of Florida has been able to beat the odds at this — but usually that next president is very short-term, usually no more than three years,” Greenwood says, referring to former UF President Bernie Machen’s 11-year term which was followed by now departing President Kent Fuchs, now in his eighth year.
Currently, searches for new presidents are underway at four of Florida public universities — including Florida’s flagship school, the University of Florida — and three other state schools have new presidents with less than a year at the helm.
A Shift from Top-Down Management
Jan Greenwood’s Greenwood/Asher & Associates search firm has assisted in the search and selection of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University President P. Barry Butler, former USF President Steve Currall, outgoing UF President Kent Fuchs and numerous other university presidents around the country.
In a recent interview with FLORIDA TREND, Greenwood talked about presidential skill sets, the importance of executive coaching and how demographic changes are impacting the search for talent.
- Skill Sets
Leadership/vision and management skills are just as important as they used to be, Greenwood says, but resource development (including fundraising and lobbying) has become much more prominent, and that, in turn, has impacted management styles. “As presidents have had to be out more working with the legislators, working with donors, etc., what’s become important is that in the management area, they’re able to hire smart, delegate and hold people accountable. To contrast it with the early ’80s, a lot of those presidents who were leaving office at that time (were) very much top down — they made all the decisions, and the people who reported to them didn’t necessarily have the experience of running their own operation. Now, that’s very different and part of the reason being because of the external work,” she says. There’s also a bigger emphasis today on diversity, equity and inclusion. “In the 1980s, that was not front and center, and neither was crisis management. So those are two areas that have become very dominant.”
- Candidate Pool
“At this point, you’ve got over 92% of presidents and provosts in their 60s and 70s — so if your presidents and provosts (who are your two main groups of candidates for presidencies) are in retirement mode, then you look at the deans. You do see some deans getting the presidencies. One of the most noteworthy was the dean of engineering at Carnegie Mellon, who became the chancellor of the University of California, San Diego. More recently, you have at Auburn, the dean of engineering becoming the president of Auburn. So you’re seeing the deans (especially if a person is a dean at a major research university) looked at more and more as possibilities for a presidency. It’s definitely impacting the market.”
“Onboarding has become a very big issue over the past five to 10 years,” says Greenwood, and many boards are including executive coaching in presidential employment contracts to improve the odds of success for new presidents. “Sometimes the candidates request it rather than the board — but we are seeing it come up more from one or the other in presidential contracts. It makes a difference, especially if you’re doing it as a person who is coming into a position because then it’s not viewed as remedial; it’s viewed as something that’s constructive to help you be successful, which is a big plus.”
In March, a new Florida law took effect that will keep the names and other “personal identifying information” of applicants in college presidential searches secret until the search’s final stages. Supporters of the change believe it will improve the pool of candidates applying for the leadership positions because they won’t have to worry about retaliation from current employers. Critics say it could diminish involvement of students and faculty in the process.