US university presidents facing tough scrutiny

Resignations thrust leadership of schools into national spotlight

By AI HEPING in New York | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2024-02-01 07:25
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Former Harvard University president Claudine Gay, who quit on Jan 2. MARK SCHIEFELBEIN/AP

Gay resigned on Jan 2 after the backlash from her congressional testimony, allegations of plagiarism emerged, and doubts arose about her academic integrity. Her tenure of just six months and two days is the shortest in Harvard's history.

Magill stepped down the month before. Kornbluth has received strong endorsement from MIT's governing board and remains in office.

Following the hearing and resignations of the two presidents, Stefanik issued a warning on what lies ahead. "This is just the beginning of exposing the rot in our most prestigious higher education institutions," she said.

House Republicans are continuing a broader investigation into what Stefanik called "a fundamentally broken and corrupt higher education system," including antisemitism on campus and DEI initiatives.

As for the flap at Cornell, scrutiny of DEI initiatives isn't new. Conservative lawmakers have for years claimed DEI efforts are a form of indoctrination.

Last year, more than a dozen state legislatures introduced or passed bills reining in DEI programs at colleges and universities, claiming the offices overseeing them eat up valuable financial resources, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported.

Many DEI initiatives have been credited as beneficial, as they are seen as a way to combat inequality by encouraging multiculturalism and providing resources for people of different backgrounds.

ACE surveys college presidents about their jobs. Each of its previous three such studies has shown a decline in length of service.

In its survey released this year, more than 1,000 presidents and chancellors from a broad range of institutions told ACE they had worked in their positions for an average of 5.9 years. Previous surveys found an average of 6.5 years in 2016, seven years in 2011 and 8.5 years in 2006.

Some education experts are worried about what this turnover means for institutional stability.

"I think institutions, whether they're journalism institutions, business institutions or higher education institutions, benefit from stability and continuity that comes from long-term relationships with leadership. And if there's excessive turnover, I think the institution suffers," said Robert Dickeson, a higher education consultant and former president of the University of Northern Colorado.

Dickeson, who served as president for a decade, told Inside Higher Ed, a print and digital media outlet owned by Times Higher Education in the US, that presidents have to "hit the ground running", which he believes makes it difficult to do the job.

"Leaders often need at least a year or two to get their bearings and figure out the institution's inner workings. At the same time, if they stay too long, it can mean that the university stagnates due to a lack of fresh ideas from the top," he wrote.

He believes the ideal tenure for a university presidency is between seven and 10 years.

Dickeson, who recently wrote a guide on the presidential search, screening and selection process for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said boards have to take responsibility for failed presidencies, given their role in finding and hiring college leaders.

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