Inside Higher Education, Why Colleges Should Consider Co-Presidencies:
One of us, Karen Gross, recently wrote an article about how co-presidencies could improve higher education [How Co-Presidents Could Improve Leadership In Higher Education (Aspen Institute 2018)], and it received no shortage of concern and criticism. To be clear, the article didn’t suggest that this type of governance was the ultimate solution for all that ails our educational institutions and their governance. It did not even hint at the idea that co-presidencies are optimal or ever workable for many colleges and universities.
Meanwhile, let’s be honest here. It is not as if institutional presidents and chancellors are doing such a stellar job that we can avoid changes in governance approaches. Hardly a week goes by without reading about a leadership kerfuffle on some campus somewhere. And, the missteps are not minor. We also know that few want to follow a successful long serving president, making hiring successors difficult. Perhaps of even greater relevance has been the recent statement from the departing chancellor of the University of Texas system, a former military leader, who stated unabashedly that “the toughest job in the nation is the one of an academic- or health-institution president.”
The most common critiques proffered of the idea of co-presidencies (despite movement toward system consolidation in states which could foster co-leadership) -- whether in writing, emails, other online communications and in conversations galore -- revolve around ego. College and university presidents are unlikely, so the argument goes, to be able or willing to curb their apparently outsized egos enough to share power.
This ego problem would lead to several undesirable outcomes: shared decision-making would be difficult if not impossible; employees would be confused as to who the “real” leader is, leading to delays and uncertainty; and bickering between the co-presidents would prevail. One commenter even contended that co-presidencies resembled all the downsides of a marriage and parenting, including the potential for divorce.
We respectfully disagree and have begun asking people with experience inside and outside academe to share examples of effective co-presidencies or their equivalents, including among individuals known to have sizable egos. Those examples proffer a wider lens through which to view co-presidencies in academe. They also serve as a reminder that, within the academy, we sometimes fail to explore options outside our particular sphere or specialty -- and that our siloed approach means that we fail to transport workable ideas into new contexts, even if some tweaks and adjustments are needed.
As we reflect on the plausibility of co-presidencies in the academy, we’d like to offer two analogies that may at first seem somewhat surprising but that pave a pathway for reflecting more positively on co-presidencies in general. They demonstrate the capacity of actual leaders to park their egos in place for the sake and safety of others and to provide guidance, stability and direction. Succession is also a topic worthy of note – not only within these two examples but also in academe.
Fighter Pilots ...
We can find a plethora of historical and present day examples of shared leadership. What seems to make these co-leaderships work is the recognition of a “higher goal” by both parties -- which works to curb egos and enables coordinated efforts.
Is it so difficult to imagine that college presidents could also be effective co-leaders, navigating egos and other difficulties of sharing power because they care about the well-being of their institutions and the people within it?
Many observers refer to college leaders as “servant” leaders. While that nomenclature often makes us uncomfortable (servants are often not positive images), there are characteristics of servant leaders that apply to pilots-WSOs, co-regents and college presidents. The American father of servant leadership, Robert K. Greenleaf, notes that servant leaders express “concern with the success of all stakeholders, broadly defined -- employees, customers, business partners, communities and society as a whole -- including those who are the least privileged,” as well as “self-reflection, as a counter to the leader's hubris.”
We think the capacity of individuals to co-lead educational institutions is undersold. Using examples outside academe and through history, we can see co-presidencies between people of different ages and stages. We can see co-presidencies between individuals with different skill sets. We can see co-presidencies as a means of preparing for succession with a long-serving leader paired with a younger leader.
What is holding us back? We have ways of reflecting on the expanded role of leadership as being something well beyond self-serving activity. And, we have abundant examples of how academic leaders are failing miserably and with frequency.
Leadership failure is hard on institutions and their students, faculty and staff. If we have an approach that can lessen the number of failures and provide benefits in times of remarkable institutional challenges, why not try?
Co-presidencies offer one, among many possible, approaches to bettering higher education leadership. Learning requires risk-taking. It’s time for college trustees and others within the academy to consider co-presidencies. The potential benefits outweigh the risks.