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The impossible role of university presidents: ‘Who would take this job in this day and age?’

Scorched-earth public attacks, shrinking enrollment, and government interference have made the job more challenging than ever.

Tourists lined up by the John Harvard sculpture in Harvard Yard.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Wanted: A candidate for president of a prestigious university, with impeccable scholarly credentials to help reverse declining enrollment and widespread distrust of higher education. The successful applicant must be able to navigate an increasingly tumultuous political climate in a country where a growing percentage of the population is doubting the value of a college degree.

Who would want the job?

It is fair to say that whoever takes over as Harvard University’s next president following the resignation last week of Claudine Gay, the university’s first Black president, will face immense challenges. Expectations are sky high, and the job of being a university president has grown in scope and complexity over the past decade.


Even in calm times, a college president must be able to raise money like a venture capitalist, inspire like an adroit politician, and comfort student bodies during times of crisis like a minister.

But increasingly they must accomplish all those feats while being subjected to withering attacks by wealthy donors, tenured faculty, lawmakers, and others. Complicating matters further, they face escalating culture wars, fueled by deepening ideological divides and targeted attacks on higher education by those who view college campuses as elitist, liberal-leaning institutions. The attacks are escalating, and the consequences can be swift and brutal.

It is also a time of unprecedented government meddling in the day-to-day workings of universities, including efforts to eliminate tenure, restrictions on how universities deal with subjects such as race and gender, and state legislative intrusion into the appointment of campus leaders, among others.

“Who would take this job in this day and age?” said Irene Mulvey, a mathematician and president of the American Association of University Professors. “The political pressure on presidents is more public than it’s ever been. . . . It’s all scorched earth.”


Presidents Claudine Gay of Harvard and Liz Magill of the University of Pennsylvania resigned, while Sally Kornbluth of MIT remains in her post.Kevin Dietsch/Getty

To be sure, university presidents are well compensated for their trouble, with pay averaging $850,000 in 2020 and perks competitive with those of Fortune 500 chief executives, including, for many, a free, often luxurious, residence.

Even so, former and current college presidents said they fear the highly charged public battle over Gay likely will have a chilling effect on candidates seeking top posts at universities.

“The idea that a 90-second excerpt could go around the world in less than a day and create a crisis — that is a new phenomenon that universities were not equipped to deal with,” said Adam Falk, former president of Williams College and president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, referring to the Dec. 5 congressional hearing on campus antisemitism that led to calls for the ouster of Gay and two other university presidents.

Harvard is not the only university looking for a new leader. Higher education is experiencing a flurry of executive departures. Last summer, Stanford University president Marc Tessier-Lavigne resigned after an independent review found serious flaws in studies he supervised, while concluding that he did not engage in research misconduct. Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania are also looking for new presidents at a time when their jobs are more challenging than ever.

“People are reluctant to take on leadership roles when they recognize they will be attacked not necessarily for their individual character, but because they are seen as part of a system that is un-American,” said Lynn Pasquerella, former president of Mount Holyoke College and president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities. “Colleges and universities have been positioned as bastions of liberal progressivism intent on brainwashing the next generation. There’s not much you can do to counter that.”


Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University, said he is worried that university leaders will respond to the current backlash by retreating from civic engagement at a time when their voices are crucial.

“It’s a great job if you love education,” he said. “But what worries me is that we’re facing a public sphere that will become so intemperate in the coming election year that if college presidents . . . don’t participate in the public sphere, then the public sphere will be further degraded by the loudest and dumbest voices.”

The ever-expanding array of challenges could explain why college presidents are not lasting as long on the job as they once did. The average tenure of today’s college presidents is 5.9 years, and more than half said in a survey that they plan to step down within the next five years, according to the American Council on Education. In 2016, the average tenure was 6.5 years; a decade earlier, it stood at 8.5 years, the ACE survey found.

And university presidents who say they are planning to step down are not leaving for other top leadership positions. The most likely next steps they are considering include retiring and holding no other position. Only 23 percent said they were considering a move to another presidency position, according to the ACE survey.


Terrence MacTaggart, a senior fellow at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges and former chancellor at the Minnesota State University and University of Maine systems, said that until about two decades ago, the job of leading a university was considered relatively secure. The post was usually held by respected scholars — predominantly older white men — who presided over institutions with growing enrollments and stable revenues. Most could expect to hang onto their posts until retirement, he said.

“The academy was a growth industry,” he said. “You really had to screw up to get thrown out.”

That stability began to dissipate with the Great Recession of 2007-2009, he said, when state governments cut budgets for public universities and the institutions responded by hiking tuition. Meanwhile, more tuition-dependent private colleges are facing lower revenues due to shrinking enrollment and demographic shifts. College enrollment among young Americans has been declining over the past decade. In 2022, the total number of 18-to-24-year-olds enrolled in college was down by about 1.2 million from its peak in 2011.

Meanwhile, the public’s confidence in higher education has sunk to all-time lows. A Gallup survey last summer found that only 36 percent of Americans have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education, down by about 20 percentage points from eight years ago. Those who say they have “very little” confidence reached 22 percent, up from only 9 percent in 2015.


The financial pressures of the job also have become more intense, forcing college presidents to make tough choices about what programs to fund, MacTaggart said. That, combined with the lingering impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the growing politicization of higher education, have contributed to the shorter tenure and higher turnover of college presidents, according to observers of higher education trends.

The constituent groups that must be satisfied — including alumni, business leaders, and politicians — number in the dozens, say university administrators and higher-education search firms.

Faculty also have become more emboldened, with a growing number of them declaring votes of no confidence in university leaders. A recent analysis by the Chronicle of Higher Education found that at least 23 faculty governance boards and unions approved no-confidence resolutions in 2023. The leaders of Rutgers, Temple, Vermont State, and West Texas A&M universities were among those subjected to no-confidence votes last year for issues as varied as tuition hikes and alleged suppression of free speech.

“The job is in a much more contested environment,” said MacTaggart, who has written several books on college presidencies. “What you need to look for now [in a candidate for president] is grit, resilience, courage, and whether they have the character to take a punch.”

Chris Serres can be reached at chris.serres@globe.com. Follow him @ChrisSerres.