The career cost of resisting political pressure is not as high as leaders fear

Most presidents don’t get fired, and those who do typically go on to rewarding new positions, says Holden Thorp

三月 30, 2023
University of North Carolina Chancellor Holden
Source: Alamy

As the battles continue between the right-wing outrage machine and outstanding higher education institutions – mostly publics in red states – the latters’ presidents face a familiar conundrum. Should they appease the critics to preserve their jobs or push back and risk being replaced by someone who will do more damage?

Yet the evidence suggests that neither presidents nor faculty should fret unduly about holding the line. That has certainly been my experience. In 2012, I was mired in an athletics scandal at the University of North Carolina when the Republican party took over the state. The crisis was not entirely political, but the change meant I had no political friends to back me up. I made a lot of mistakes and couldn’t get ahead of the story. Still, I defied many calls to shut down the Black studies department where fraudulent classes had been exposed. I stayed close to my colleagues in faculty, staff and student governance and leaned on them for support.

When I finally gave up the following year, the people I cared about rallied to get me to stay. This perhaps proved the political folks’ accusation that I was “too close to the faculty”. Either way, I want that phrase engraved on my tombstone. And it certainly hasn’t done me any harm: I went on to two fantastic jobs.

My successor, Carol Folt, had an even more overtly political ride. When controversy ensued over a Confederate statue that should have been long gone, she bobbed and weaved, but when protesters finally pulled it down, she did the right thing by refusing to put it back up and removing its pedestal. The board fired her and she rode off to Los Angeles, where she is now president of the University of Southern California.

There are more examples like Carol and me than the other way around. During my cycle, Biddy Martin escaped a political maelstrom at the University of Wisconsin over institutional autonomy to go be an outstanding president at Amherst College, and Richard Lariviere was fired from the University of Oregon after also pushing for greater institutional independence but went on to run the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, which he later told me was the “best job I ever had”.

The few who don’t go on to other exciting things are usually the ones who chose the board over the campus; this doesn’t play well with the campus members of future search committees.

What about the institutions left behind? Usually, despite all the noise to the contrary, they end up picking a new leader who is more or less a traditional president. Every so often, an inexperienced conservative politician or business person gets put in, but the results are usually disastrous. Remember the private equity guy, Simon Newman, who wanted to fix Mount Saint Mary’s retention rate by “drowning the bunnies” (that is, encouraging students at risk of dropping out to do so early, before they count in the figures)? What about the short tenure of Republican governor John Engler at Michigan State University? Or General Bob Caslen, whose appointment at the University of South Carolina had required conservatives to destroy the search process? He made it less than two years and was replaced by a traditional president.

This all adds up to the conclusion that it’s better for presidents to stand up for what they believe in. More than likely, the board doesn’t have the courage to fire them. And if they do get fired, they’ll find something else good as long as they stick closely enough to their values.

And those looming supposedly evil successors? They probably aren’t going to make it, but they’re coming eventually anyway, so best to get on with it. When Kent Fuchs deferred to the board on numerous things at the University of Florida, the campus defended him because they knew his replacement would be a Republican politician. But all they did was delay the inevitable. We don’t know yet how senator Ben Sasse will do as president, but the examples above suggest he’s in for a rude awakening if he thinks he’s going to order the 6,000 faculty members in Gainesville to conform to anything.

The battles go on at public universities in Florida and far beyond. Michigan State remains in crisis because of conservatives upset about the justifiable dismissal of its business school dean. In North Carolina, trustees are proposing whole schools without consulting the faculty or the administration and simultaneously denouncing the accreditor for reminding them that their own policies don’t allow that. Republican trustees at the University of Virginia are referring to valued campus citizens as “numnuts”. And efforts to teach about diversity and increase representation is under attack in as many as 25 states. The battle is here whether we want it or not.

All this is very good news for search consultants, but presidents should avoid spending all their money on therapists. Yes, relocating is disruptive. But take it from me: there are a lot of fun places in the world to take our craft.

Holden Thorp is editor-in-chief of the Science journals, a former chancellor at the University of North Carolina and a former provost of Washington University in St Louis.



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Reader's comments (2)

This is completely anti-factual, as are most of Thorpe's writings. He was not a president but a chancellor, I note
This is a self-serving rewriting of history. On stepping down as Chancellor of UNC-CH, Thorp made great, and tearful, play of "returning to the faculty" (in the Chemistry Dept.)--many wept with/for him--but he very quickly jumped ship for Washington University in St. Louis (faculty there will no doubt have their own views on that). Folt took an impressive stand on "Silent Sam," but she had already, one suspects, lined up the better job at USC given the speed with which the appointment was announced. And if fired or otherwise disgraced presidents/chancellors move on to "rewarding new positions," that is often an indictment of a system that tends to ignore administrative incompetence.