CHICAGO — Dr. Charles Green’s resume was im-pressive. He had served as president of the Hous-ton Community Colleges system for five years, before that, president of one of the prestigious Maricopa Community Colleges in Phoenix for nine years and, prior to that, as a dean at Inver Hills Community College in Minnesota.
But suddenly in 1995, he found himself without a job and “trying to figure out how to pay the bills.” The phone wasn’t exactly ringing off the hook with job offers, in part, because of a much-publicized spat with his last bosses.
Houston trustees forced Green to step down from his $158,000-a-year job as the top administrator at the nation’s second-largest two-year institution, blasting him for not whittling what they considered to be a bloated administration.
Though Green contends he did nothing wrong, he feels the stigma of what happened in Houston haunted him. Eventually Green accepted several consulting jobs here before joining the city’s public school system in 1998.
He likes his job as assistant director of career opportunities. But truth be told, he misses working at community colleges. “I would like to get back. I’m good at that work,” he says. “Just because I got a divorce from one community college doesn’t mean I don’t have a lot to offer.”
Green’s plight is not that uncommon these days.
So what’s the next step for a college president who has been unceremoniously shown the door? How many presidents are willing to jump back in the “sack” with another board after a rocky romance with a previous one? And if they are willing, how hard is it to hop to another college presidency?
That depends on many variables, higher education experts say. But with the rise and fall of college presidents becoming a much more public affair, landing another gig after a tumultuous departure isn’t getting any easier.
Some say they don’t care to lead a college again. But for those who are willing and able, there is often a long and tortuous road to redemption.
Speaking From Experience
Dr. George Ayers knows the drill. Among college presidents and leading administrators who are Black he has become a guru on career management and institutional development. “I’ve gotten good advice from [Ayers],” says Dr. Thomas Law, president of Saint Paul’s College in Virginia. Law, a veteran higher education leader, previously has served as president of Virginia State University and Penn Valley Community College in Kansas City, Mo.
Ayers’ value to campus leaders, especially those in hot water, is that he has walked along the same path his presidential colleagues now travel. A former community college president and president of a four-year urban university, Ayers spent many years navigating his way through the minefields of campus politics.
At Chicago State University during the 1980s, he emerged as a controversial college president known for an aggressive management style and his close political connection to former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington. Ayers initially had earned his presidential stripes as chief executive of Massasoit Community College in Massachusetts before moving to Chicago State in 1982.
Although credited with working hard to involve Chicago universities in public school reform, Ayers clashed with Illinois state officials over what direction to take Chicago State. His relationship with state officials didn’t improve any after allegations of irregularities, including the handling of student financial aid and health insurance, surfaced. Under pressure, Ayers resigned from the presidency in 1989.
“I was pretty aggressive in attacking the criticisms of the university’s academic reputation. This was not received well and contributed to making the president’s position untenable. I knew it was time to move on,” Ayers says.
In a move few minority college presidents have the opportunity to make, the hard-charging Ayers became vice president for academic programs at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities in Washington, D.C. “I needed and wanted time to reflect whether I wanted to pursue another presidency,” he says.
Instead of seeking another chief executive’s slot, Ayers opted to launch Ayers & Associates Inc., a northern Virginia-based higher education management consulting and executive search firm, to work primarily with minority institutions and talented minority administrators. Ayers says his firm was the only minority-owned company of its kind when he founded it in 1991.
“I created the firm with the notion of specializing in helping minority institutions with organizational development activities and attracting talented academic administrators. I also wanted to help create professional employment opportunities for minorities,” he says.
Notable accomplishments for Ayers and his firm include his being hired by the state of Ohio to lead a reorganization of Central State University. Ayers and Associates also completed a study for the William and Melinda Gates Foundation that served as the basis for their $1 billion scholarship program for minority students in science, math and engineering.
Recognizing that minority administrators often have more difficult transitions in going from one position to another and fewer resources for professional support than their White counterparts, Ayers began advising top Black education executives on an informal basis, including those facing tough times on their campus.
“I have interacted with a number of presidents about their tenure. I encourage them to explore their current state of affairs and their future ambitions as well as examine whether or not they should remain in their current position, or move on to another institution,” Ayers says.
“I have counseled [them] on future professional opportunities and what steps might be considered in making a transition to another presidency or to another professional position.” he adds.
Ayers says redemption for a president rebounding from a troubled tenure is difficult — but possible. When presidents experience problems, they “always have to overcome those images and perceptions whether perceived or real,” Ayers says. If a president moves to another campus, “past images tend to follow him or her.”
Less than five years after her dismissal as president of South Carolina State University, Dr. Barbara R. Hatton has bounced back to lead the revival of Knoxville College in Tennessee.
Hatton, also a former dean of education at Tuskegee University in Alabama, became president of the financially ailing school in July 1997. Since then, she has boosted enrollment and fund-raising. Corporate donations to the school increased from $35,000 in 1997-98 to $225,000 in 1998-99, and alumni giving jumped 100 percent to $240,000 from 1997-98 to 1998-99, according to school officials. Current student enrollment is 203, up from 90 in 1997-98.
Failing to provide Hatton a specific reason for her dismissal, the school’s trustee board abruptly voted to fire her in June 1995. News reports say that Hatton had clashed with trustees about the direction of the school and that faculty members had complained that she was too dictatorial. Hatton began the job in January 1993. She later won a legal settlement against the trustee board for breach of contract.
Although Hatton retired from higher education after the South Carolina State dismissal, an executive search firm recommended her to Knoxville College trustees as a top choice to lead the troubled school.
“Higher education professionals and trustees who know Black colleges or who took the time to do the research understood that my problems at S.C. State were entirely political. The difficulty I faced was in finding a way to extricate my career from the politics of an institution with which I was identified both personally and professionally,” Hatton says.
She says certain individuals associated with South Carolina State launched a smear campaign to block her from being fairly considered for other jobs.
“I was approached immediately to become a candidate for another presidency but quickly withdrew from the search,” when it appeared that rumors were spread deliberately to hurt her, Hatton says.
“Thus,” she says, “my first months of retirement were spent in defeating that campaign instead of pursuing other opportunities.”
Not All Firings Are Equal
Being fired is traumatic. Period.
But not all firings or forced resignations are equal, says Dr. George Vaughan, a professor of higher education at North Carolina State University and editor of the Community College Review.
“Is there a cloud over the person? That depends on the circumstances of how they were let go. A president being let go after misuse of funds, that’s a major cloud. A president let go after sexual harassment charges, that’s a major cloud,” Vaughan says. “On the other hand, if they’re let go after they remove a person with political connections, there should be no cloud.”
Though there appears to have been a spate of presidential firings in recent years, Vaughan doesn’t see an increase in number. He does believe, however, that the toppling of top administrators has received more media attention of late.
The average tenure for a college president is 7.2 years and has remained so for approximately 10 years, Vaughan says. The actual number of college presidents who are turned out has always been much higher than most realize, he says.
“Very few presidents are actually fired. Most are encouraged to resign,” he says. “People don’t like to kill people. This is one of the reasons these clouds don’t follow presidents as much as you might think. There’s no clear trail leading to misconduct.”
Vaughan’s upcoming book, “Balancing the Presidential Seesaw,” features 10 tenets to help keep presidents out of trouble. No. 1? “A president shall not lie or mislead the governing board, faculty or other members of the college community or public.” No. 2 is that “a president shall not fail to keep the board informed about important issues facing the college or involve trustees in those issues.”
Vaughan warns against presidents using their office for any personal gain, political agenda or forum. They should not engage in questionable relationships with any member of the college community, abuse alcohol or drugs, he says.
Beware, he says, of employing friends, relatives or political nominees who are not fully qualified. And he warns presidents against becoming arrogant or distant so that faculty no longer are involved in decisions.
And, lastly, he says, presidents shouldn’t stay in positions too long that “all the excitement and challenges are gone…. Most presidents are intelligent and hardworking. But occasionally they do stupid things.”
Issues For Minority Presidents
For minority college presidents, CEO opportunities have tended to be at minority-serving institutions, such as the historically Black schools, urban public universities and community colleges, observers say.
Dr. Reggie Wilson, senior scholar emeritus of the American Council on Education, says the challenges awaiting a president differ widely according to the type of institution at which he or she is based.
Wilson, a former president of Wayne County Community College in Detroit, says he is most familiar with the hazards of the community college environment having done battle with a difficult trustee board during his tenure there in the 1970s.
“The community college president is generally subject to the interference of politicians to a degree much greater than that of presidents at other public institutions,” he says.
In the early 1980s, Wilson won a wrongful dismissal lawsuit against the Wayne County trustee board. Although he is credited with growing the college into one of the largest in the nation at the time of his dismissal in 1981, Wilson’s success did not insulate him from a highly political trustee board.
“Local politicians are much more prone to get into the governance of the local community college. Presidents have to be attuned to their programs and interests,” Wilson says.
He adds that city- and county-controlled four-year institutions tend to be highly-politicized as are two-year schools.
Governing boards appear to be more involved in college operations than decades ago, says Dr. Joshua Smith, former chancellor of the California’s community college system and former president of New Jersey’s Brookdale Community College.
“I think it’s the board’s job to hire, support and perhaps fire presidents. The board should be loving critics, and should be careful not to get into direct administration,” says Smith, now the director of the Center for Urban Community College Leadership at New York University.
His advice to college presidents is “keep the board happy… It’s hard to do. I don’t mean never say, ‘No.’ Be fair. Do your best on behalf of the college and hope this leads to good reports,” Smith says.
He has seen some ousted presidents get plum jobs, and others stumble. Smith believes minority presidents have more trouble getting another top job, perhaps because of a smaller network. He recalls two women, both talented, who were never able to recover and land community college presidencies again.
Higher education experts say that some states seem to “recycle” presidents. In many cases, a move to another region is necessary. Smith advises ousted presidents to “pick up and move on and let go of bitterness.”
Also, be careful of filing a wrongful dismissal suit, he says. “You may get the reputation as a litigious person no one wants to touch.” Sometimes silence benefits both parties — not just the board, he says.
Among Black colleges and universities, Wilson contends that private schools traditionally sport a more politicized environment than their public counterparts. “It’s been my observation that at [Black] private colleges, presidents have shorter tenures than presidents at public Black colleges,” he notes.
Wilson argues that because public Black colleges tend to be governed by either state higher education boards or boards whose members are geographically dispersed, their presidents operate with considerable independence.
“Presidents of public Black schools are in a sense more isolated from their board of trustees,” he says. “And less political attention is paid to the smaller public schools than the larger flagship institutions.”
The Right Fit
Sometimes a president is the right fit for a college, but then the school’s needs change.
“Trustees should determine how a community is going to be better because of the existence of the college. Trustees set the goals, then turn over the operation to the president and staff,” says Dr. Ray Taylor, president of the Association of Community College Trustees. “By and large a college hires a president with some particular purpose, depending on where they are in their development.”
If a school is expanding its capital improvement projects, trustees may seek a president who is skilled at this.
“Some presidents are very good in developing faculty and new curriculums. Some have great public relations skills in the community,” Taylor says. “A college may find someone that fits, then later the match is no longer there.”
Taylor says that today colleges’ needs undergo tremendous change because communities are always changing. “A research university needs to move slower, but it’s the nature of our business to reflect a community,” he says.
Wise presidents know when it’s time to leave. It may just take someone new to bring a new spark to a school, says Taylor, who believes that few college presidents actually fail at their jobs.
“I just can’t imagine a more difficult job today,” he says.
A governance factor affecting Black institutions, both private and public, has been the gradual change in their leadership ranks, Wilson notes. No longer do Black schools exclusively rely upon administrators promoted from within, Wilson says.
“Black colleges used to have their own ‘old boy clubs.’ Thirty-five to 40 years ago, presidents came from an insular world,” Wilson says.
Wilson recalls that in 1970 when he, as president of predominantly Black Wayne County Community College, sought to network with Black college presidents at a National Association for Equal Opportunity in High Education meeting, he was made to feel unwelcome because he was a northerner and had not attended a historically Black institution.
That insularity has changed because Black institutions now recruit their top administrators from all over and from predominantly White institutions as well, Wilson says. But observers say clashes between the old guard and newly recruited leaders break out from time-to-time at Black institutions. The recent protests at Jackson State University over the appointment of Ronald Mason, a Black attorney who is a former Tulane University administrator, as president is just one example.
Twice Removed in New York
On a fall morning, Dr. Neal A. Raisman has his hands full of fresh dough. He’s making homemade bread. Not the norm for a man who just a few months ago had a morning full of meetings and college business.
The former president of Onondaga Community College in Syracuse, N.Y., was asked to resign earlier this year. The local press cited his decision to eliminate four dean-level positions, including one held by the wife of a top-ranking county official, as the reason for his removal.
But that wasn’t the first time Raisman, a Boston native, had left a president’s post unwillingly. Two years earlier, he left from suburban New York’s Rockland Community College after angering a local politician for firing a councilwoman who also worked for Rockland.
At this point, Raisman, unlike Green, has little desire to be a community college president again.
“If I do it again, it’s not going to be in New York,” quips Raisman, who is credited with uplifting Onondaga at a time when the college was at a low point with slumping enrollment and tight budgetary constraints.
He likens being a community college president to walking on a tightrope. “People come up every now and then and twang the wire,” Raisman says, “to see if they can topple you.”
After he left Onondaga, Raisman, 52, planned to take some time off to clear his head. He did get some offers, not for a presidency, but to consult on marketing and troubleshooting at schools around the country.
He just recently signed a contract with the State University of New York system’s College of Agriculture and Technology at Morrisville to help that two-year institution with its marketing and advertising.
“It feels good to know that you’ve got something of value to offer others. And it’s lucrative,” says Raisman, who’s also writing a mystery novel set on a community college campus. The title: “Board to Death.”
Raisman’s background includes helping to create a new community college in New York and serving as dean at Lansing Community College in Michigan. He’s worked in community colleges since 1966. Though he and his family like Syracuse, they will probably leave and move back to Massachusetts.
He says he knows people mean well by sympathizing with his situation, but Raisman finds these “living eulogies” make him feel like he died.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com