Monday, May 13, 2019

Red Flags

I don’t know the details of the Portland State presidential resignation beyond what has appeared in the press.  Having said that, one line in the IHE account jumped off the screen for me:

“In 18 months on the job, he went through four provosts.”

Flags don’t get much redder than that.  That, in itself, is alarming.

Some level of turnover is normal when a new president arrives, and some level of turnover is normal generally.  But four provosts in 18 months is preposterous. Absent some sort of natural disaster, it suggests something has gone badly awry.

Some presidents use provosts or vice presidents as shock absorbers, much the way that President Trump uses Cabinet secretaries.  (“I like ‘acting.’ It gives me more flexibility.”) In other cases -- not that these are mutually exclusive -- presidents (or Boards) create such toxic environments that people start bailing.  

Neither is positive.  In both cases, after a while, it becomes difficult to attract good people to those roles.  And even if you do, they become paralyzed, both because it’s impossible to build trust when people don’t expect them to last more than a few months, and because it’s hard for them to find their footing when they keep getting cut off at the knees by the folks above.  

Having stepped into vice presidencies following people who had burned bridges, I can attest that rebuilding them is a challenge on a good day.  Add mercurial or toxic leadership from above, and it becomes impossible. If the president or Board makes a habit of moving the goalposts, nobody will be able to be effective.  And it will play into existing narratives of distrust, making them that much harder to dislodge.

There’s a narrative popular in business circles of the “take charge/take no prisoners” leader.  That leader -- usually male -- “tolerates” no “excuses” in pursuing the “bottom line.” He often casts himself as a “change agent,” and casts existing employees as obstacles.  Trustees who come from the business world may find that style familiar, or even identify it as the only true form of leadership. But it’s a remarkably bad fit for education.

In this setting, much of what happens depends on people being willing to go above the minimum.  They have uncommon autonomy in how they work. Power is decentralized at a level inconceivable in many businesses.  Yes, there are rules, but much of what makes a college succeed or fail happens in how people view those rules. Are they ceilings or floors?  Is the college worth extra effort, or have you been burned enough times that you only feel like working just hard enough not to get fired? (And any self-proclaimed “change agent” is in for a rude shock the first time he tries to fire somebody with tenure.)

For a Board to let a president go as far as that one did suggests either inattention or a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the institution.  Undoing that damage will take time, but not only that; it will take some folks rethinking what it is they’re trying to do. After a rogue president, the temptation will be to clamp down and micromanage, but that’s exactly the wrong thing.  To the folks who’ve stuck around, it adds insult to injury. They need to bring in someone who understands the big picture, and then back off and let them work. That’s a tall order for people who think of themselves as hard-charging leaders, but it’s the likeliest way to get a good, sustainable outcome.

Or they can churn through another half-dozen provosts, looking for magic, and wondering why everybody seems angry all the time.  Their call.