- - Wednesday, September 18, 2013

PRESIDENCIES DERAILED: WHY UNIVERSITY LEADERS FAIL AND HOW TO PREVENT IT
By Stephen J. Trachtenberg, Gerald B. Kauvar and E. Grady Bogue
The Johns Hopkins University Press, $34.95, 163 pages

“Presidencies Derailed” is a critical study of how and why college presidencies break down, or, as the subtitle explains, “Why University Leaders Fail and How to Prevent It.” This is not the only book on this important topic, but it has to be the timeliest.

Just last year, there was a huge brouhaha at the usually staid University of Virginia after a trustee engineered the firing of the president. So much dust was raised that when it cleared the president had her job back and the trustee had academic egg on her face. Then the president of St. Mary’s College, a small gem in the state of Maryland’s system of higher education (full disclosure: my son is a graduate), decided to step down after the highly respected liberal arts school failed to meet its coming year’s enrollment goal by one-third.

Earlier, there were a number of presidents who had to resign from nearby institutions — Penn State, the University of West Virginia and, most publicly, the University of Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Va. Other recent and related news includes the formation by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges of a national commission to review college governance, and to take, in the words of the association’s president, “a deep look at how universities and colleges are run.” Then there is the plan recently announced by President Obama to study colleges with the goal of reducing tuition by way, in part, of a cost comparison of schools.

All of these issues are related to the work of this book’s three main authors and four contributors, all of whom come well-credentialed. The best-known is probably Stephen J. Trachtenberg, the president of the George Washington University from 1988 to 2007, and since then, its president emeritus. His GW colleague Gerald B. Kauvar is a research professor of public policy and public administration and special assistant to the president emeritus. Mr. Trachtenberg and Mr. Kauvar have worked together (both at GW and elsewhere) for several decades, and this is their second book as co-authors. E. Grady Bogue, the chancellor emeritus of Louisiana State University in Shreveport, is professor of leadership and policy studies at the University of Tennessee.

They write in the preface, “During 2009 and 2010, fifty college, university, and system presidents resigned, retired prematurely, or were fired.” The authors concentrate on those who did not last the first full year of their terms, in their eyes a true derailment. The book is composed of 10 chapters. The first lays out themes common to these derailments, or to use their term, “train wrecks.” The next six present studies by other scholars offering examples of train wrecks, and the last three provide the authors’ advice on how to prevent them.

The book benefits from use of the scientific method; in this instance, the case-study approach. In Part 1, each of several “Derailment Themes” is supported by examples based on the composite experiences of real schools that have been given fictional names. These are broken down further into private liberal arts institutions, public schools that grant a master’s degree, research universities and community colleges. Each section also looks at what part the institution’s board played — or failed to play — followed by a brief conclusion.

Four of these chapters are the work of experienced contributors, including Keith Carver (executive assistant to the president of the University of Tennessee), Julie Longmire (assistant director of career services at Memorial University Duncan School of Law), Jason McNeal (a consultant with an advancement consulting firm) and Leigh Anne Touzeau (another Tennessean, who serves Pellissippi State Community College as assistant vice president of enrollment services). Their collective experience is both wide and deep.

Those readers who stand to gain the most from this informative volume are presidents, schools and their boards, but there is also much of value for students, their parents, educators on all levels and communities. Most useful in this respect are probably chapters six and nine — “Firsthand Experiences of Derailed Presidents” and “Lessons Learned about Presidential Derailments.” Most candid, and quite poignant, is the Trachtenberg-Kauvar interview with William Frawley, whose back-to-back DUIs (directly related to his medical and emotional problems) cost him his job at Mary Washington and also his hard-earned reputation.

Happily, “Presidencies Derailed” is not written in academic jargon. While there’s the requisite use of “stakeholders” and “cohorts,” the bulk of the volume, and especially the prose of the three main authors, is both clear and enjoyable to read. It is also instructive. They write, “Effective leaders must first know themselves, and then they must be adept at understanding the world around them. All leaders must read the script for any play in which they plan to perform.” You don’t have to be a rocket scientist — or a university president — to appreciate the sagacity of that observation. Moreover, this sobering and informative book has a great deal of useful advice for those who want to be, or find, a university president.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.