How should a university leader know when to quit?

In the wake of Jacinda Ardern’s and Nicola Sturgeon’s decisions to step down as leaders of their respective nations, university leaders and experts reflect on when is the right time to give up the biggest office on campus

March 30, 2023
New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern announcing her resignation at the War Memorial Centre on January 19, 2023 in Napier
Source: Getty
New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern announced her resignation in January 2023

As the cliché says, it’s tough at the top. But it’s also tough to know when to step down from leadership positions that bring with them many perks as well as pressures. Perhaps that is why political leaders are usually dragged from office kicking and screaming – either by their electorates or their weary colleagues.

However, New Zealand’s internationally admired prime minister Jacinda Ardern shocked the world in January when she announced she no longer had “enough in the tank” and was stepping down after six years in the role. The following month, on the other side of the world, Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, announced her own departure after eight years leading the devolved nation, saying she no longer had the stamina to go on.

As well as their own welfare, national leaders also have to consider whether it is the right time for their party and their country to have a change of leader. While Ardern’s star was considered to be waning – domestically, at least – ahead of a general election later this year, Sturgeon’s departure has been seen as problematic for the Scottish National Party: her bickering would-be successors lack her political stature and other parties in Scotland are sensing a new electoral opportunity after a long period of SNP dominance.

University leaders have a similar dilemma when deciding when to hand over the chauffeur and the strategic plan to someone else. While some reach compulsory retirement age or move on to bigger institutions, others have to make the decision based entirely on what is best for them and their institution. So what is the typical length of service – and what would it ideally be? Here, four experts reflect on recent trends, while three former university leaders offer their own reflections on how they knew it was time to step down.


Too little, too late

I retired in 2017, as my fifth anniversary as a vice-chancellor approached. My term still had time to run, but I had been concerned for my youngest son, an autistic 14-year-old, whose special educational needs had prevented him moving with me when I took up the post in Adelaide. Seeing him only occasionally on FaceTime or during weekend trips back to Melbourne had not been ideal, and my staying longer in Adelaide would have meant his living out the rest of his teens largely without a father. In essence, I had made the previous five years my own, but I felt profoundly that my next five needed to be his.

In any case, I had just turned 65, in Australia the traditional retirement age, and after more than 40 uninterrupted years employed in universities – 32 of them in demanding leadership positions – I felt ready for a change of scene and slowing of pace.

Looking back five years later, the timing clearly worked well for me: aside from resuming life with my son, it gave me freedom to pursue interests impossible to maintain as a vice-chancellor. I was able to buy and regularly use a boat again, to significantly scale up my daily cycling and jogging regime, to relocate away from a city to the peaceful mountains bordering Melbourne, and to travel internationally for pleasure rather than merely for meetings. It was rejuvenating: my weight came down, my health improved, and my sense of well-being grew.

But did the timing work well for the university? When I left, my strategic plan had some years still to run, and my campus construction masterplan had delivered only the first (if largest) new building. Was this unfortunate for the institution? I worried that it might be, but subsequent events did not suggest it was: neither plan survived my departure, but the university seemed to find new strategic directions and capital projects easily enough.

Even so, with hindsight I think it generally makes better sense in a university for the v-c to be in place for longer than I was – and to be appointed younger. Selection committees often imagine they need a powerful achiever who can bring about a quick transformation, focused on solving short-term problems. But so much about a university is long term: its courses, its tenured staff, its research strengths, its land and buildings, and, of course, its history, which in some cases spans centuries. Stability is critical to the institution’s standing, to its staff’s morale and to community trust.

As a new v-c, you need to understand this and to work alongside the staff, taking them with you through gradual, considered change. So a v-c should be young enough to stay in place for seven to 10 years; a sequence of short-term leaders will likely stunt a university’s long-term growth.

In my defence, if my own term was too short to be ideal and my appointment at the age of 60 too late, I was nevertheless part of the trend towards increasing age and decreasing terms we have seen among v-cs in recent years. In this environment, strengthening continuity through developing a leadership pipeline becomes important.

Each university should seek to identify potential campus leaders in their thirties and early forties, building a pool of promising individuals who are aligned with the university’s mission and exhibit the capacity to lead it. Then a structured development programme could be set up for them, equipping them with the skills needed for a role that has changed enormously over recent decades. Selection committees would then be able to confidently appoint leaders in their late forties and early fifties, putting them in a position to shape their institutions’ evolution for a decade or more.

Warren Bebbington was vice-chancellor of the University of Adelaide from 2012 to 2017. He is now a professorial fellow at the Centre for Studies in Higher Education, University of Melbourne.

Sarah Springman carries the Olympic flame during the London 2012 Olympic Torch relay

The endurance race

As an endurance athlete, I know how to manage my reserves and “replenish my tank”, and when to stop. I completed seven years as rector of ETH Zurich before stepping down last year. ETH professors are legally required to retire at 65 unless there are exceptional circumstances. Even though I was kindly asked by ETH president Joël Mesot whether I wanted to serve another year to complete the two four-year terms that reflect a president’s usual tenure, I was pretty exhausted and I thought it would be advantageous to the institution to stagger the appointment of our replacements to ensure that there was no leadership vacuum.

One might ask whether universities benefit from shorter or longer terms for their leaders. I think the ideal length of service depends on the institution, its desire for turnover and the situation: each institution will have its own opportunities and face a variety of challenges. Sir Anton Muscatelli, in post as principal of the University of Glasgow since 2009, has led his institution from strength to strength and is still in top form 14 years in. But seven years seems to be a fairly typical length of service – it is also, coincidentally, the term at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, my current role. It is long enough to plan strategically, carry out pilot projects, make changes and address any other deep-seated issues.

I was elected ETH rector after completing a decathlon of trial tasks, over a period of 10 months: a most peculiar form of selection that was also quite demanding. At ETH, the rector is the No 2 in the institutional hierarchy, in effect the vice-president for education, as well as head of ceremonies. To my surprise, I discovered on appointment that I was also president of the student housing charity, working closely with the rector of the University of Zurich. I found myself line-managing the CEO, overseeing the construction of new buildings, being responsible for accommodation complexes worth at least SFr150 million (£133 million), and occasionally acting in other roles, too! In addition, I was vice-president of the charity providing 300 childcare places at eight ETH nurseries. And I participated in the governance of the much-valued IDEA League, a strategic alliance with four other universities of science and technology, and the UNITECH international STEM leadership training programme, on top of national and extensive in-house commitments.

It was rather all-encompassing and not very sustainable long term. Setting up a more appropriate range of responsibilities for the next incumbent was essential when thinking about succession planning. Under Joël’s leadership, the executive board was enlarged by two positions to seven, allowing us to distribute such duties better. The restructuring process is still under way.

But however demanding the job as rector was, it was also enormously rewarding. Together with the executive board, four engaged and highly competent vice-rectors, and with the committed staff in the rectorate, I had sufficient time to effect change. We built achievements incrementally and in partnership to form something that turned out to be very special in the end. Pilot projects were started and many had been implemented by the time I left, including the splendid Student Project House, which now provides 1,200m2 of collaborative space over five floors within a listed architectural marvel.

I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to serve our students, the staff, my colleagues and Switzerland. But I know I made the right decision to step down when I did, both for ETH and for me personally. My successor, Günther Dissertori, is now carrying the torch onwards and upwards.

Dame Sarah Springman is principal of St Hilda’s College, University of Oxford. She was rector of ETH Zurich from 2015 to 2022.

Expert view: the virtue of patience

When are people “too old” to work? A recent survey reportedly found that 53 per cent of workers in the US expect to work beyond the age of 65, 13 per cent do not expect to retire at all, and 56 per cent will continue working in retirement. Further, 40 per cent agreed that there is no age at which a person is “old” because “it depends on the person”; the median age for being deemed “old”, if provided, was 70.

How does this translate for the university president? This certainly is a high-stress, long-hours position. Should university presidents “age out”? When are they “past their prime”? According to data from the American Council on Education, nearly 58 per cent of university presidents are more than 61 years old, with 11 per cent more than 71, while only 8 per cent are under 50. Just 15 years earlier, only 30 per cent of university presidents were 61 or older. While the percentages change somewhat, this pattern follows regardless of the type of institution.

We have also looked at presidents of the top 20 research universities, as reported by the National Science Foundation. Of these, nine are at least 65 and another three will turn 65 this year. Perhaps more interestingly, 11 of these presidents were 57 or older when they were appointed (57 also is their median age). None were younger than 50. In addition, nearly half have served for no more than five years, the typical length of a first contract. For comparison, the average age of a corporate CEO at time of hire is 54 years; 14 years ago the average age was just 46.

Looking at these presidents, age and retirement are likely to determine when most stand down. But, as Oscar Wilde (no relation to Judith!) said, “With age comes wisdom, but sometimes age comes alone.” Perhaps there is a better rubric than age for determining when it is time to go (and begin).

Currently, most university presidents are appointed for defined terms without limits. Few would agree that offering a president indefinite tenure makes sense, but perhaps boards should consider limiting the number of terms a president can serve in order to plan for succession, as is sometimes done in the corporate world. After all, an article in the Harvard Business Review on the “CEO Life Cycle” observes that, beginning around year six of their tenure, many CEOs fall into “the complacency trap”, characterised as a “time of prolonged stagnation and mediocre results”.

So, is six years more than enough? Perhaps. But the authors also found that those CEOs who persevered beyond 10 years in post then had five more “golden years”. These CEOs often “go on to experience some of their best value-creating years. Their long-term commitment and ability to reinvent themselves and the company are coming to fruition. Some CEOs described a flywheel effect: Projects and investments that produced no results early on were finally paying off.” This may indicate that patience is boards’ ultimate virtue.

However, in the end, it may be that self-knowledge is best placed to inform a president’s decision to stay or go. Two years ago, the CEO of The CEO Project wrote in Inc. magazine that a CEO needs to know when they are out of ideas, when they are low on energy, and/or when they feel underpaid. If any of these apply in a president’s case, we invoke the chorus of Kenny Rogers’ song, The Gambler:

You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em,

Know when to walk away and know when to run.

You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table:

There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealing’s done.

Judith Wilde is research professor and James Finkelstein is professor emeritus in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. They have been studying university presidency for more than 20 years.

Playing the long game

Seventy-five years ago, serving as a college president in the US was primarily a white gentleman’s occupation. Some of those gentlemen served over 40 years in the position, aided by a cabinet of only a handful of colleagues: dean of students/admission, a financial bursar and a librarian. Most students were also white men, and most “disruptions” were friendly pranks – with the occasional new theory of exposition.

After the Second World War, however, life on campus began to dramatically change with regard to gender, race, politics, class and overall demeanour – not to mention density of population. American colleges and universities are today fertile ground for the democratisation and social levelling of the country, where dreamers gain the skills to alter their own lives and the course of history. To lead such an institution is a privilege. It is also demanding. It calls for a skill set that is as complex as the institution itself, in its unique way.

One key attribute is diplomacy. Few industries in the US are as highly regulated as are colleges and universities. To mention just a few sources of oversight, academic accreditors set standards, state and federal governments monitor mandates and local communities establish guidelines for student lifestyle, facility construction and energy use. Then there are the multiple constituents on campus, with their frequently competing needs – dare I say demands. This system of shared governance is much like a national government’s political party coalition: trade-offs are necessary, sobering and at times inefficient.

Perhaps that is why effective university presidents are, at heart, more like mayors than professors, building partnerships, facilities and programmes that serve the greater good. Some of the most outstanding contemporary college leaders I see come from the professional fields of politics and the law, as well as the academy. Perhaps, as a trustee once told me, attorneys are presumed to have a knowledge of the criminal mind!

A successful president must have strength of character and principle, humility and respect for others; their personality must encompass both ego and empathy. They also need intellectual curiosity, business acumen and visions that are both broad and deep, seeing the institution from 40,000 feet in the air and 50 years in the future.

Large amounts of mental and physical energy are also a must. The job is a never-ending term of activity that consumes nights, weekends and vacation time. Technology and social media are both friend and foe, allowing little privacy and keeping you always in touch with “the news” – including when you are the news! Serving as president, in short, is not for the faint of heart.

But as well as intuition and skill, good fortune and a dose of the divine play a role in the unfolding of both an individual’s career and a university’s path to greatness: the personal and professional strands are separate but equal and each must be respected, like the warp and weft of a strong piece of fabric.

Each president and campus have a make-up that is unique: the person and the place must mesh in a constructive manner, serving personal and institutional agendas. I was a president at two universities. I first spent 11 years (1977-1988) leading the University of Hartford, a largely undergraduate regional institution in Connecticut. I then had the added good fortune to serve as president of George Washington University in the nation’s capital for almost 20 years. I grew in the jobs and, supported by the talents of my administrative teams, was able to propel both schools to higher planes.

You don’t need to be the smartest person in the room: the president must simply be clever enough to bring together the best and brightest shining lights into a harmonious and workable structure. But completing that puzzle takes time. Indeed, it can take 10 years to understand the culture of a school, envision its possibilities, meet its power brokers, craft plans for implementing strategic goals, raise funds to endow innovation and stability, and then push the horses of change out of the gate. Yet, today, the average US college president stays in office for just 6.5 years. Many “flame out” earlier than this in tragic situations, illustrating how hard it can be to find the right fit of personal and institutional make-up.

In my view, one should remain in office while relations are strong and productive with the various stakeholders: trustees (overseers), faculty and staff, students, alumni and all the other constituencies that universities serve. At the end of the term, the win-loss record must remain in the plus column. But a person should depart the presidency if any one of three conditions apply: the job is either no longer professionally and personally satisfying for at least four days a week, the temper of the times or the culture of the campus is no longer in alignment with the president’s professional talents and disposition, or those who oversee the university’s governance develop new aspirations for the school and its leadership team.

Rule number one of any job, on or off campus, is to remember who does the hiring and who does the firing. Be ahead of the curve and jump before you are pushed.

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is president and university professor emeritus at The George Washington University and former president of the University of Hartford in Connecticut. Previously, he served as a dean and vice-president of Boston University after leaving a career in government service.



Expert view: the select few

A lot of things have changed in UK university leadership over the past 40 years but, perhaps surprisingly, length of tenure is not one of them.

Examining vice-chancellors’ characteristics and their universities’ performance was the PhD topic of one of us, and was published in Socrates in the Boardroom: why research universities should be led by top scholars (Princeton University Press, 2009). The study sample included 55 pre-1992 universities, with data from the 1980s to mid-noughties. Our current research group is on the cusp of again examining v-cs and institutional performance, now with four decades of information.

One big change is university leaders’ disciplinary backgrounds. In the 1980s, scientists made up 75 per cent of v-cs of pre-92s, 64 per cent of them being engineers. By the 1990s, however, they made up only 50 per cent across the dataset of all UK universities. And that figure fell further, to 23 per cent, between 2000 and 2009, and to just 18 per cent by 2019.

Given that women are more numerous in the humanities and social sciences than in the sciences, it is perhaps unsurprising that the disciplinary shift has been accompanied by a sex shift in vice-chancellors’ offices. But those changes have been very striking nonetheless. Only one woman led a pre-92 research university in the 1980s, and only three did so in the 1990s. Between 2000 and 2019, across all UK universities, male academics still out-numbered women by five to one, and 85 per cent of the v-cs who completed their terms in office during this period were male. But the proportion of v-c roles held by women increased from 11 per cent (13) in 2000 to 24 per cent (28) in 2019. A higher proportion still were leading pre-92s, and recent prominent appointments suggest that that proportion may still be rising. Moreover, the gender wage gap that previously existed between male and female v-cs had largely disappeared by the end of the noughties.

Women tend to start their v-c careers at a younger age than their male counterparts and retire a little earlier. But while popular wisdom has it that vice-chancellors’ tenures are getting ever shorter, the data does not particularly bear that out. Across all universities, the mean length of tenure was 10 years in the 1980s. It fell to eight years in the 1990s, but it has remained there ever since.

However, there are clear differences in tenure lengths between vice-chancellors whose contract stopped at retirement, who make up 40 per cent of our sample (106 people), and those who left pre-retirement (157). Retirees spent an average of nine years in post, while non-retirees’ average tenure was only six years.

The disparity is not obviously age- or experience-related: retirees were appointed at only a slightly older age (54) than non-retirees (53). You might think the explanation is simply that those not lured away by another top job stay in their current post until retirement, but only 29 v-cs (11 per cent) of the non-retirees went on to become head of a different university within our data. The point seems to be that while some vice-chancellors are able and willing to bear the physical and mental burden of leadership all the way to retirement, the majority – whatever their sex – are not.

Amanda Goodall is professor in leadership at Bayes Business School (formerly Cass), City, University of London. Ray Bachan is senior lecturer in economics at the School of Business and Law, University of Brighton.


Print headline: How does a v-c know when to quit?

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Reader's comments (5)

Oh, when did university presidents become leaders of political parties and elected by legal voters? What have I missed?
How about when they accept £150m from Schwarzman of Blackstone?
Back in 2021 we concluded our work on Leadership Transitions in Universities: Arriving, Surviving & Thriving (Kennie T. and Middlehurst R.) Routledge. Leaving is clearly one of those points of transition which we aimed to capture in Chapter 15 – New Beginnings. Among a number of helpful insights from our interviewees were the following; “I’m done when the things I need to do are done, was one view from one Vice Chancellor (now retired) I talked to…I’ve never thought like that because I don’t think you are ever going to do all the things that need to be done. … So, I feel that I would rather think of it as, when do you become… when do you get diminishing returns, when do you become more of a liability than an asset? When you are too much part of the furniture that you can’t see anything acutely afresh anymore. I do think that after a very long time in one place, that becomes more likely. So, I definitely don’t think of it in terms of task.” For another, they proffered the view that it becomes apparent when: “How do you know when it’s time? One thing is the importance of the alignment between your agenda, your ambitions, your aspirations for the institution and that of the Council/Board, the Chair and the Senior Team. And I think the point at which there’s a scintilla of significant difference, that’s when you ought to realise that the days are numbered. Reflecting on it, in the early days, if there is a difference, because the team have invested in you, and have got confidence in you, they will adapt to your agenda. I think after a while, if there are differences, then the organisation is no longer prepared and wants the Head of University to adapt. And it’s seldom a sort of big cataclysmic event where you have a vote, I mean sometimes they get to that, but usually it’s small, tiny bits of decisions where there is a bit more push back here and a bit more push back there. And that’s different I think from inertia, different from discussing issues and being flexible and adaptable - you need to recognise that’s a signal - its time.” Or as one of our interviewees ruefully put it: “When I started getting letters that were addressed to me that said ‘Dear Head of Provider’, I drew stumps and said to myself, I’m either going to have very high blood pressure or I should ask someone else to deal with this.”
There should be a two year term limit. Actually the role of VC needs abolishing and replacing with a committee of at least 40 people. The monarchial style of leadership that infests universities and corporations has no place in the modern world. We need to move to collective leadership and stop paying a few figurehead VCs millions to do the least of anyone in the University. A sole person as a leader is so outdated and so wrong that it amazes me it still exists.
monarchical leadership is dead and needs replacing with collective decision-making