April 21, 2022
If there’s a new “hot seat” in higher-education administration, it might burn hottest at the top. The job of public-college system head has seen a string of abrupt departures, board battles, and contentious searches. Last month, for example, Melody Rose resigned as chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education after less than two years on the job. Rose had filed a complaint with the system’s general counsel in 2021, alleging, among other things, harassment by members of the system’s Board of Regents based on her gender and their political views.
The nation’s growing political polarization has fueled much of the current upset in system governance, says Jill Derby, a senior consultant with the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, known as AGB, and chair of the Board of Trustees of the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani, Iraqi Kurdistan. Derby was chair of the board of the Nevada system back in the ‘90s and ‘00s and says she often didn’t know her fellow regents’ political affiliation. Now, she says, partisanship “is very much in the mix of boards.” Such dynamics can be particularly acute in states with one-party control of the governorship and legislature, according to a Chronicle analysis.
But long-running changes in what’s expected of the job have made it tougher, too. System presidents and chancellors now serve in a role that has evolved from an advocate and caretaker to a chief innovation officer from whom results are demanded. They steer collections of increasingly complex institutions through some of the most tumultuous times higher education has ever seen. And they do all this during the most politically fraught period the country has experienced in half a century.
After all, sociopolitical turmoil ensnaring a university’s top leader is nothing new, says John M. Isaacson, founder and chair of Isaacson, Miller, an executive-search company. Red scares swept campuses after World War I and during the McCarthy era, testing the resolve of system leaders. Clark Kerr, the architect of the vaunted California Master Plan for Higher Education, upon which many public-college systems are based, was fired as head of the University of California system in 1967 by a Board of Regents aligned with then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, who disapproved of the free-speech movement at the system’s Berkeley campus. Politics make these “demanding times for system heads,” Isaacson says. “But it’s in the nature of the role and not historically anomalous.”