Why So Many Abrupt Exits for University Presidents? And How Can We Prevent Them?

When the University President Exits Abruptly - Image of Empty Lecture Hall Chairs

At four institutions, a university president exited abruptly – in a single week in June. What causes such abrupt departures? And how can they be prevented?

On June 24, 2019, campus leaders and stakeholders awoke to find out that four campus presidents (Auburn, Bennett, Marist, Mullenberg) “were out, without notice or explanation”—to quote the headline Inside Higher Ed ran that day. Each president was in office less than three years.  This was startling news. Thursday that week, a fifth president “resigned,” from Hollins University. That’s a lot of exits and resignations in a single week.

We believe we will continue to see more of these unexplained departures.

Unfortunately, we can no longer afford them. A sudden and unexplained exit creates havoc for a campus, leaving stakeholders left in the dark, wondering what happened and plagued with unanswered questions: Why didn’t they see the warning signs? Could they have helped prevent the departure? Why did the board dismiss the president? Who will be the next president, and will they be successful under these difficult circumstances? Who would want to step in after such a sudden departure? (Will we get anyone good?)

This atmosphere of instability, confusion, and even fear is not healthy for a university campus—especially in a time when the university leadership needs to be acting to steer the institution forward through difficult challenges. If our individual institutions and higher education as a sector are to be less vulnerable, we need to find ways to understand and prevent these abrupt presidential derailments.

The co-authors of this paper have written frequently about presidential transitions and about how to prevent these abrupt exits (Sanaghan, Goldstein, & Gaval, 2009; Gaval & Sanaghan, 2016 & 2017; Sanaghan, Gaval, Riccio &Titus, 2017; Sanaghan & Lohndorf, 2018). We have talked with many of our colleagues about this over the last several years. We have also just finished a comprehensive guide to presidential transition and integration, which will be published later this year by Academic Impressions.

The purpose of this article is to highlight one of the most insidious and irresponsible reasons why these partings are happening so frequently. We will also make a bold proposal that will help stakeholders in higher education prevent more of these departures going forward.

Why Are These Derailments Happening?

We are defining a presidential derailment or sudden departure as a presidency that lasts less than three years. Some of these derailments are quite visible—they show up in The Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed. There are also many “quiet” derailments, where a president “seeks other opportunities” and is profusely thanked for their “wonderful contributions.” That language used to describe a departure is never a good sign.

Trachtenberg, Kauver, & Bogue (2016) identified a “wall of silence” that surrounds these sudden exits and that often prevents us from determining just what happened. This wall is understandable, because an institution wants to save face and protect its reputation. However, in the end, this wall of silence is a destructive practice because we never learn from the failures we suffer.

In our book Presidential Transitions (2009), we found that the 50 presidents we interviewed estimated the number of university presidencies that would derail at between one third and one half of all presidencies. Something pervasive is going on here yet we don’t want to talk about it publicly. Yet we need to. There are several hundred presidential transitions happening each year, and many are doomed to fail before they start. How can we prevent these derailments from occurring?

We are not naïve Pollyannas; we know we can’t prevent all of them. Nor should we want to. There are some derailments that are well-deserved, as in cases of financial improprieties or sexual misconduct. There are no excuses for those, ever. In those cases, an institution needs to get rid of the president as quickly as possible. But in other cases, there is so much mystery behind many derailments and resignations, and we need to raise the curtain and explore what went wrong.

Despite this mystery surrounding presidential derailments, the co-authors of this paper (two of whom are sitting or former presidents themselves) assert that the primary cause of derailment has to do with the fragile relationship between the president, the board chair, and the executive committee. Fragile at best. Honestly and actively addressing this “triad” relationship will go a long way toward reducing presidential train wrecks.

It’s well known that the relationship between the president and the board chair is the most important on campus. Unfortunately, it’s also the most fragile (Sanaghan, Goldstein, and Gaval, 2009; Sanaghan, 2011). If things don’t go well between these two parties, there is trouble in River City. There is an old axiom that if the president and the board chair have a problem, the president is the one who has a problem—and is usually gone in short order.

This relational fragility is dangerous for any institution. How can the outcomes for a president of a complex institution—often with thousands of students and stakeholders—be so reliant on one relationship? We have seen and heard of scores of these quick exits in which the board chair and president “weren’t on the same page”—or where they, more often, had a “personality clash.” The fiasco at the University of Virginia in 2016 is case in point.

We have witnessed two situations in which a new president inherited a board chair who helped hire them during the search process—which is a pretty good insurance policy for a successful transition. However, about a year after the new president arrived, the vice chair took over as board chair, bringing to the table a dramatically different leadership style and expectations. In both situations, the president left the institution due to the “mismatch” with the new board chair (Sanaghan, 2011). How did this come about? How can one relationship matter so much to the future of an institution?

We believe that the president needs to build positive and engaging relationships with the entire executive committee (EC) of the board, not just with the board chair. The president must be connected meaningfully with the entire executive committee. This means that we need to develop explicit strategies to build the executive committee into a high-performing team with shared responsibilities for the new president’s success. This will render our institutional leadership less vulnerable to “personality clashes,” because the chair, while still significant, is no longer omnipotent. (A caveat: The makeup and role of the executive committee differs from institution to institution. Some institutions underuse the executive committee; others overuse it. The broader point is that, whatever the convention at the university, the president needs to find and use a sounding board that is broader than just the board chair.)

Laying the Groundwork for a Less Fragile Relationship

It’s important that the new president understand why each member is on the board and what expectations each of them has of the president. This is especially true of the EC members. One way to achieve this understanding is to hold a one-day retreat with all the members of the EC before the new president arrives on campus to lead the institution. This retreat needs to be professionally facilitated to ensure that each member of the EC participates fully. This is not the time for a casual conversation or a “good old boys/girls” chat; it is a serious and strategic discussion. Some of the topics that need to be addressed include:

  1. An agreement on communication protocols between the president and the EC, not just between the president and the board chair. For example, specify protocols for frequency and format of communication—and establish a “no surprises” rule.
  2. A process for dealing, effectively and quickly, with any “problems” that might appear later. Boards rarely have this conversation because people like to focus on the positive things, rather than anticipate potential problems. Given the pace and complexity of the challenges facing our campuses, however, problems will inevitably occur, and there needs to be a defined and agreed-upon process for identifying these problems as quickly as possible and then resolving them. The EC should communicate to the president that they want difficulties and challenges identified promptly, and that there is no shame in asking for help.
  3. The chair of the board is empowered by their trustee colleagues, usually by a vote electing them to the chair role. Once in office, the chair assumes the authority provided by the institutional by-laws, but always subject to the satisfaction and will of the full board.  Depending on institutional bylaws, the president does not report to the board chair, but to the full board.  Therefore, it is imperative to clarify and communicate the role of the board, trustees, the board chair, as well as the president’s role if he/she is a voting and/or ex officio member of the Board.
  4. Explicit and realistic expectations for the first year. This is where many first-time presidents get into trouble. There are two powerful dynamics at play during the first year:
    1. The board is often more ambitious than they need to be regarding the number and complexity of first-year goals. It’s critical for the board to recognize that the president’s first-year priorities ultimately revolve around two primary things: 1) The new leader needs to get to know the culture of the campus deeply, which takes time, and 2) The president needs to build the relational capital they will need to actually lead their people (Sanaghan & Gaval, 2017), which also requires time, authenticity, and patience. If the president doesn’t get these two things right, not much else matters. So avoid overloading the new president with a bucket list of priorities.(Several years ago, one of the co-authors was brought into an intense conversation between a new president and board chair, in which the chair had handed the new leader 115 strategic priorities to implement during the first year! It took several meetings over the course of a month to get the board chair to realize that his expectations were unrealistic and that the new president would fail, inevitably, under the weight of such impractical goals.)
    2. The new president often wants to impress on the EC and board that they were absolutely right to select them. Too often, the new president focuses on trying to hit a lot of “home runs” to make a great impression in the first year, rather than focusing on building the foundation of a successful presidency. Avoid this at all costs. The EC needs to manage the new leader’s expectations carefully, so that they are set up for long-term success, rather than faltering by “reaching for the stars” constantly during the first year.
  5. An honest assessment of the senior team, identifying their strengths and areas of needed development. This rarely occurs—again, because people tend to paint a rosy picture for the incoming president. But the new president needs to understand the team they are inheriting, and if there may be some potential problems, they need to know this up front. The EC needs to address any sticky and challenging problems on the senior team before the new leader comes onto the campus. The last thing you need is put a new leader in the position of needing to get rid of a member of the senior team who has been a problem for years, because people lacked the courage to deal with them (Sanaghan, 2011).
  6. Finally, this initial retreat needs to include an open discussion of several items that will help the new president better understand the motivations, expectations, customs and culture of the EC. Also, it is important to clarify board operations, including the purpose and use of the Executive Committee, who evaluates the president, when and what is the process.. The president might consider asking some of the following questions of each member, to create an authentic dialogue with the entire EC:
    1. Why did they join the board?
    2. What are their hopes and aspirations for the institution?
    3. What external networks are they connected to? How can these help the campus?
    4. How do they see themselves supporting the campus?
    5. What advice can they suggest that will empower the president to perform well in their new role?
    6. What tangible support can the new president expect during the first year (e.g., executive coaching, identifying a campus or off-campus mentor or two, etc.)?

Such questions open the door to an open and honest conversation and help to establish the “culture” of the EC, going forward. Establishing this shared culture is crucial because this is the group that the president will count on to lead the institution into the future.

The key takeaway here is that roles of the board need to be designed in such a way that the executive committee can share the burden of support and responsibility for the success of the new president. Furthermore, if difficulties do arise between the board chair and the new president, you now have several committee members who can provide advice, wise counsel, facilitation, and perspective.


We hope you will find this proposal relevant, practical and useful. We believe the most pervasive and frequent cause of abrupt presidential departures are a strained relationship between president and board chair. Taking action before the president arrives on campus to lay the groundwork for strong working relationships with the board’s entire executive committee provides an operating culture of stability and accountability. Given the increasing challenges and complexities of these roles, greater attention and intention is warranted to ensure the success of new presidents and the universities they have been called to serve and to lead.

Further reading:

  • 10 Mistakes New Presidents Often Make by Kathleen Gaval & Patrick Sanaghan. Academic Impressions, 2016. This paper is an Academic Impressions member exclusive.
  • How Higher-Ed Leaders Derail: A Survival Guide for Leaders by Patrick Sanaghan, with Jillian Lohndorf. Academic Impressions, 2018.
  • Preventing Presidential Derailments: The 10 Early Warning Signs by Patrick Sanaghan, Kathleen Gaval, Steve Riccio, and Steve Titus. Academic Impressions, 2017. This paper is an Academic Impressions member exclusive.
  • Leading Colleges and Universities by Trachtenberg, Kauver, & Bogue. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018.
  • Presidential Transitions: It’s Not Just the Position, It’s the Transition by Patrick Sanaghan, Larry Goldstein, and Kathleen Gaval. Rowan & Littlefield, 2009.
  • “Presidential Transitions” by Patrick Sanaghan. Inside Higher Ed, 2011.


Image Credit: Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash.

Learn More

There are hundreds of presidential transitions taking place every year, but many are doomed to derail early. Why is this? Often, it’s because attention is paid only to the initial hire and transition. Though the search process is important in selecting a new president, it is merely one component in a larger integration process that will make or break a presidential tenure. If we are to prevent presidential derailments, then the integration needs to be explicit, strategic, well-executed, and monitored and owned by campus leaders, especially by the governing board.

The only book of its kind, From Presidential Transition to Integration is a practical, in-depth handbook to setting up a college or university presidency for success. It’s a must-read for aspiring presidents, transition committees, and boards.

Book Cover: From Presidential Transition to Integration

by Patrick Sanaghan
with Steven Titus, Karen Whitney, and Kathleen Gaval