Which College President Resigned Today?

In July, five college presidents resigned in a week—one for each workday. Some ran small to mid-sized eastern colleges and universities: Seton Hall University, Thomas Jefferson University, and the Berklee College of Music. Others led large research powerhouses: Stanford and Texas A&M universities. Only one, Marc Tessier-Lavigne of Stanford, had been in office for more than five years. By contrast, four of the last six presidents of the United States served eight years in office. The average U.S. president lasts longer than the average college president, despite constitutional term limits! Some schools have trouble keeping a president for even three years—look at Michigan State, which has had four presidents since 2018 (John Engler, Satish Udpa, Samuel Stanley, and current president Teresa Woodruff). Big Ten rival Ohio State has had no president for three months—its president until May, Kristina Johnson, lasted less than three years.

Just after I drafted this piece, two more presidents of important universities announced their resignations: Sylvia Burwell will step down in 2024 after seven years at American University, and the dean of all university presidents, E. Gordon Gee of West Virginia University—who has headed two other flagship state schools (Colorado and Ohio State) as well as two fine private institutions (Brown and Vanderbilt) over a career spanning more than four decades—plans to step down in 2025.

The average tenure of an American university president is down to about five years. In the second half of the last century, presidents of prominent universities very often lasted more than a decade. At my rather typical mid-quality state university (Ohio U.), we had two presidents from 1975–2004, one lasting nineteen years, the other ten. Over its entire 219-year history, the average presidential tenure has been 10.0 years. In the last six years, however, we have had three presidents (the current one, Lori Gonzalez, is in her second month).

Why is this happening? Being a college president these days is not as fun, prestigious, or career enhancing as it used to be. By many measures, higher ed is a declining industry—enrollments are lower than they were a decade ago, and finances have generally weakened at most institutions. Schools are doing less hiring and more firing, which is not as rewarding. Polling shows that public support for academia has declined sharply. Politicians have grown more demanding and controlling. Students and faculty have grown more contentious, as have rich donors and governing board members.

The economist in me says, “well, to attract and keep college presidents, you need to pay them more.” That came to mind a couple of weeks ago, when the Chronicle of Higher Education released its compilation of public university president salaries for 2022. Some twenty-one presidents received more than $1 million in compensation. Two things struck me the most: First, a few states, most notably Texas, pay their presidents much more than others, while some states, most notably California, pay their presidents relatively little. Second, there seems to be a modest correlation, at best, between presidential salaries and the school’s national reputation.

[Related: “A Game of Leftist Whac-A-Mole: Why College Presidents Are Quitting”]

Regarding the first point, four of the nine top-paid presidents were in the state of Texas (at Texas Tech, Houston, North Texas, and the University of Texas at Austin.) None of the top fifty listed were in California—I don’t know why, although past surveys have shown surprisingly low salaries for the heads of the UC system and of the Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses.

Some of the most prestigious state schools do not pay their presidents high salaries. The University of Virginia, the University of North Carolina, and the University of Michigan are probably the top three non-California state universities. Only President James Ryan of the University of Virginia made the top twenty-five—barely. Why do the presidents of Texas Tech and the University of Houston make a good deal more than that of the more prestigious and wealthier University of Texas?

How aggressively do colleges and universities use performance bonuses? Why not pay a president $600,000 a year but offer the possibility of $1 million or more in bonus payments? Here is a possible bonus formula:

• 20 percent based on change in the average of three national university rankings (say, U.S. News, the Wall Street Journal, and Forbes);

• 20 percent based on demonstrated improvements in commitment to intellectual diversity and freedom of expression, as assessed, at least partly, by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression;

• 20 percent based on the retention rate between freshman and sophomore year;

• 20 percent based on the school’s financial strength, judged by changes in the endowment and in private donations; and

• 20 percent based on research accomplishment, measured by grants awarded, patents obtained, and royalty income.

There are all sorts of other possible factors. In the private sector, CEO compensation at big corporations is mostly non-salary pay—why not move higher education in that direction? To reduce the problem of excessive presidential turnover, why not give longevity bonuses, rewarding presidents who stay around for more than four or five years?

Further, it must be somewhat demoralizing to have subordinates making vastly more than the boss—namely, football and basketball coaches, along with their top assistants, at dozens of schools in the top five (soon, I think, to be four) athletic conferences. College sports are a scandal encompassing a riddle straddling an enigma wrapped in a mystery—a bad reworking of a memorable Winston Churchill speech about Russia (which still seems very relevant). Or, to pervert another Churchillian phrase: an American university presidency is the best collegiate job there is—except all the others.

Image: Adobe Stock


  • Richard Vedder

    Richard Vedder is Distinguished Professor of Economics Emeritus at Ohio University, a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, and a board member of the National Association of Scholars.

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9 thoughts on “Which College President Resigned Today?

  1. A hideous contemptuous lot . They sit and sit and sit while watching our college and university system be overrun by nauseating Marxist ideologies . The Greatest Generation could not see this coming .

  2. This article is thought-provoking, and the various responses provide additional explanations for this phenomenon. Here is another possible explanation:

    College/university presidents today are expected to be “woke” and PC on every issue that any institutional constituent might expect to see a presidential statement about. Whether it’s a statement on George Floyd’s death, anti-semitism, anti-Asian discrimination, Karl Rittenhouse’s acquittal, the Harvard-UNC affirmative action decision, the institutional campus’s occupancy of former indigenous land, etc., college presidents feel compelled to issue groveling public apologies.

    The president of my own alma mater regularly issues such statements ad nauseam, to the point of meaninglessness, as official institutional notices rather than as personal opinions. The college has had several presidents since my day on campus, but we never saw such statements from previous incumbents. It is a recent pattern, one that I hope ends soon.

    Presidential compulsion to issue these statements can only add to the normal stresses of college presidents’ responsibilities. I suspect this may contribute to the short tenure of some presidents.

  3. I’m more inclined to think it is rats abandoning the sinking ship — which, I’m told, they do.

    Who more than the college president would know the exact status of the institution, financially and otherwise? While everyone knows that the babies not born in 2008 won’t be going to college in 2026, who more than the college president will have seen the internal enrollment management data indicating what this will actually mean. And it’s not that students and faculty have grown more contentious as much that it is increasingly impossible to meet their expectations, and who would know this more than the college president?

    Let’s just take the recent Students For Fair Admissions decisions — one does not have to be a rocket scientist to understand that a compromise here is not possible — that you will have riots if you don’t meet racial quotas (or goals, or whatevers) and lawsuits (that you will quickly lose) if you do. But who other than the college president knows how much affirmative action is being employed, not to mention how many other things such as minority-only scholarships are now also unconstitutional. Again, riots if you end them and lawsuits if you don’t — and no third path out of the mess.

    Students, parents, alumni, and legislators are all demanding “relevance” — relevance for employment while faculty wish to teach esoteric courses and the DEI mafia wishes to impose its indoctrination on everyone. All three goals are mutually exclusive — Johnny isn’t going to get a good job because he knows Shakespeare’s stage wasn’t the shape we once thought it had been, and he definitely doesn’t like being told he should hate himself because he is a White male. The university can only put up so many cameras to monitor his behavior — who but the president would know how close the institution is to having its White male students openly rebel. Or simply stop attending, which they already are starting to do.

    And then there’s Gen Z which lost upwards of 18 months of education during the Covid lockdowns. Zoom Skool did not work — I say that as an educator — and as unprepared as undergraduates used to be, they now are upwards of two full grades behind where they once were. So not only will there be the existing need to remediate high school courses, institutions will now have to remediate middle school courses as well. And they won’t have a choice because there is a shortage of bodies — remember all those babies not born in 2008….

    And then when Higher Ed expanded in the 1960s & 1970s, they built a lot of buildings with 40 year life expediencies — and those are all now falling apart. Every institution I am familiar with has “deferred maintenance” that they don’t really want to talk about, and that this list is getting both more expensive and more dire each year. Who other than the president would know how much money he/she/it doesn’t have to fix stuff that desperately needs to be fixed?

    And then every college in the country also expanded during the ’00s to meet the demand of the Millennials without realizing that they were a demographic blip. Many built lots of new buildings with borrowed money — borrowed in anticipation of student enrollment numbers that they won’t be able to meet. The thing that saved higher ed in the 1980s when the Baby Boomers aged out was recruiting middle aged women into college, except that the Millennial women already have their degrees.

    Like gamblers at the casino, it was thought that institutions could expand their recruitment into other areas of the country and hence get a larger slice of a shrinking pie — except that everyone else is trying to do the same thing as well, and the pie is shrinking. Some may be successful, but most won’t — and I’m still of the opinion that half of the institutions that existed in 2019 won’t be here in 2030. Some have already failed, and a whole bunch more are really shaky right now.

    And even if you are at an institution that survives doesn’t mean that you’re going to have a fun time…

    Throw in the ultimate wild card — what Congress may do.

    Higher education is dependent on Federal dollars in a way that it’s never been before. Not only is there Federal student financial aid and assorted research grants, but the jaw-dropping research overhead percentages. Even Barack Obama wanted to reduce those, and eventually Congress will.

    Then there is the question of who wins the 2024 elections, both in terms of the White House and Congress. When about half the country has contempt for higher education — and polls indicate this — how is higher ed going to do if the Republicans win the election? And even the Democrats are going to have competing demands from defense, infrastructure, and an aging Baby Boomer population.

    I don’t know what these college presidents do — no one does. But I’m really wondering if this is simply a case of getting out while the getting is good.

    1. I am not sure that the President of the school would actually know what was being done in terms of Affirmative Action in admissions. In my experience, admissions are the bailiwick of the Admissions Office bureaucracy, and few University Presidents get into the nuts and bolts of much beyond fundraising and a few pet projects. At the last University I was a faculty member at, a Big Ten school, faculty determined who was admitted as a graduate student and undergrad admissions were left to the admissions office. Presidents paid little attention to the details – other than a directive coming down from one to start admitting more foreign undergraduate students to increase revenue flow.

      1. I don’t know how long ago that was, but the buzzword today is “enrollment management” which includes both recruiting enough students to fill all the seats, and then to shape the desired characteristics and statistics of the class.

        No, the presidents aren’t making individual decisions — but don’t think that they aren’t making it clear what they want the freshman class to look like. They always have, all the way back to a Century ago when presidents said they didn’t want as many Jewish students, and I can’t see legal counsel having a conversation with admissions about affirmative action without involving the President’s Office.

  4. Not sure what the point of the article is. Seems like a solution looking for a problem. It is irrelevant that higher ed is a declining industry. People lust for these positions because of the money and benefits. Yeah, the salary may be only $600K per year but what about the perks? Free housing? (I’m going to guess probably not in a one bedroom apartment.) A car? I wonder how many meals per week the university president pays for. I submit that when you add salary AND benefits the total is well into the 7 figures—and not just at Texas universities. My moderate size public university just got a new president and the startup package was 8 figures.

    I seriously doubt university presidents feel demoralized because the football coach makes more money. That has been true for decades, yet there doesn’t seem to be any dearth in applicants when a presidental position becomes available.

    In the end it doesn’t matter if a university president stays only a few years or stays 15 years; there are always people waiting in line to replace them.

    1. Patti, the thing to understand is that a President is offered a salary “package” of a certain amount, of which the person has total freedom as to how it will be paid. Some as salary, some as deferred compensation, some as Retirement (eg TIAA/CREF), and some in some other funky things.

      The purpose of this is threefold — first, the goal is to defer actually earning money until later when one is in a lower tax bracket and thus will pay less taxes on the money. A related second reason involves arcane aspects of the tax laws and also involves the person paying less taxes. Things like housing and car allowances are somehow treated different for tax purposes — I don’t understand this but there are major tax savings that you can play with these games.

      And third, it helps everyone for the President’s official salary to be a third or more less than what it actually is. You have to presume that the actual “package” is upwards of twice what the published salary figure is, and I have to believe that there is some sort of hidden compensation in the Cal State system because otherwise there would be cries of “racism” & “sexism” when White males elsewhere were paid more.

      1. Mitch Daniels startled the academic community when he insisted on a lower base salary than he was offered by the Trustees, with the difference ties to meeting performance goals. There were Purdue faculty members who actually objected – the concept of accountability for actual job performance being foreign to so many in higher education. In my department (Health and Kinesiology), for example, the tenured faculty rigged the P&T requirements so that the requirements were LOWER for promotion to Professor from Associate than from Assistant Professor to Associate. For example, Assistant Professors were required to apply for and receive a research grant in order to be promoted, while Associates needed to merely apply to gain promotion. It was not coincidental that when I left, Assistant Professors had the highest productivity in the department and Professors the lowest on average.

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