Presidential Tenure and How it Intersects with Philanthropic Success

Judy WierJudyth Wier is a 26-year fundraising professional working with not-for-profits and institutions of higher learning. She is a member of the Edu Alliance Advisory Council.

Presidential tenure must be one of the things that keep any President awake at night. The length of time a person is President of a university is decreasing at an alarming rate.

Let me cite an example of where I graduated, Auburn University. The president was Dr. Harry Philpott who served for 15 years from 1965 until 1980. The President before him for 18 years was Dr. Ralph Draughton. Since 1980, 8 others served as president until the most recent President Dr. Steven Leath selected in 2017. This works out to an average tenure of 4.62 years for each of the presidents from 1980-2017.

While 4.62 years seems like a short time for a President to serve, Louisiana State University from 1980 to 2017 had 13 presidents (including interim’s) for an average of 2.84 years. A significant percentage of presidential tenures nationwide come to an end after three to five years.

The American Council on Education’s (ACE) report, “The American College President 2017,” found that college presidents served an average of 6.5 years in that position compared to a 7-year average in 2011 and 8.5 year average in 2006. According to American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) data covering the past five years, presidential tenure lasted four years or less for 44.9 percent of member institutions. Only 26.9 percentage lasted 10 years or more.

“Fundamentally, the reason why tenures are shorter is because the agenda for leadership is so dynamic and is changing more quickly than it was in the past,” stated Lucy Leske, a senior partner with Witt/Kieffer’s Higher Education Practice. Fundraising and coalition-building have become a significant part of the university president’s job description.

Presidents are being asked to set a vision and motivate a wide variety of constituent groups, some with competing interest, to help in its implementation. The president must gain their trust to impart the whys and end results of implementing his/her vision. These constituent groups include university leadership, board of directors, faculty/staff, alumni, business, and community leaders. Is the average tenure of 6.5 years enough time to assess the culture of the university, develop a vision, gain constituent trust, and implement?

Numerous research articles show that developing a vision and motivating constituents of this vision is a primary responsibility of the president. They also show that successful fundraising is a critical component. Financial strength – endowments and alumni giving – are dependent upon the ability of president to seek and bring in philanthropic dollars.

In the last ten years there has been a growing list of challenges that has changed the job description for a university president. No longer is the domination of academic leadership at the forefront. We now intersect financial stability and growth of the university with staying the course of mission. As there is movement away from seeking out academic leadership in a president to one of vision maker/fundraiser. We are seeing changes to who is applying for these positions and who is being hired.

In the past decade the following have impacted this intersect of vision making and fundraising versus academic leadership at universities:

  • decreased state funding
  • lower enrollment
  • decreasing international enrollment
  • limited access to student loans
  • increased emphasis on transformational leadership
  • cost to attend college vs. increase in median family incomes

Can we realistically ask for success by university presidents with average job tenure of 6.5 years?

Successful fundraising is heart to heart relationship building. A president must spend time with prospects in building a relationship that may lead to a philanthropic impact gift. It starts at the top.

According to the 2013 study by The Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy titled: Million Dollar Ready: Assessing the Institutional Factors That Lead to Transformational Gifts in Higher Education “Longer presidential tenure is associated with higher numbers of million-dollar-plus donations. An institution with a president in office since 2000 tended to receive a higher number of million- dollar donations during the study period of 2000-2012, holding other factors constant.”

For this process to be successful he/she must spend the time. It is not a “one and done”, nor is there a way to rush this process. It is a genuine investment of time. My experience with university and college presidents is that they spend 35% of their time on fundraising. It is a daily activity. Most were on a learning curve, willing but not yet able to lead a fundraising campaign

Dr. Jessica Kozloff, Senior Consultant with Academic Search and President Emerita of Bloomsburg University Pennsylvania, cites change management research which overwhelmingly show that in any organization, five years is the minimum time required for anyone in an executive leadership position to make a positive impact on the organization they are charged with leading.

Short tenures do little to establish a true sense of security within the university. They also leave little time to follow through on the vision established when the president first arrived on campus. For success there must be a process to develop personal relationships, effectively communicate the vision, and establish trust that leads to engaged supporters.

Over the last decade the financial challenges of our public and private universities and colleges have moved the leadership position to be filled with those who can create and articulate a vision, develop trust, engage in the growth of the institution’s endowment, and increase the percentage of alumni giving.

While university presidents have traditionally come from positions within academic fields, this is changing. With University boards increasingly looking for candidates that can fundraise we must ask if presidents are prepared for this task if it has not been a part of their professional experience. I believe fundraising is a hands on experience. It takes experience to know when the time is right for sitting across from a multi-million dollar donor and agreeing to their gift parameters.

Are we in that transitional moment where direct experience as a fundraiser may overtake the past trend of a President coming from the academic administration ranks? We shall soon see with the selection of the next generation of higher education President’s.

Judyth Wier is a 26-year fundraising professional working with not-for-profits and institutions of higher learning. Nineteen of those years were spent in leadership roles that included planned giving, marketing, fundraising, management, external communications, and strategic planning. Her higher education career includes serving as Vice President for Institutional Advancement at Cottey College in Missouri, Chief Fundraising Officer for the University of New Orleans, Louisiana, Executive Director of the Advancement Louisiana State University of Veterinary Medicine, and Associate Vice Chancellor University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

The school is the last expenditure upon which America should be willing to economize. ~Franklin D. Roosevelt

Additional Article Sources

American Council on Education. Spring Supplement 2012. “The American College President Study: Key Findings and Takeaways”. Bryan J. Cook.

American Association of State College and Universities. 2017 Summer. Public Purpose. “The Erosion of Presidential Tenure”. Karen Doss Bowman

“University Presidents and the Role of Fundraising at Private Liberal Arts Universities.” 2016. Dissertation by Greely Robert Myers, Walden University.

“The Relational Effect University Momentum Has on Philanthropic Support”. May 2016. Dissertation by John D. North. Olivet Nazarene University.


cropped-edu-alliance-logo-square1.jpgEdu Alliance is a higher education consultancy firm with offices in the United States and the United Arab Emirates. The founders and its advisory members have assisted higher education institutions on a variety of projects, and many have held senior positions in higher education in the United States and internationally.

Our specific mission is to assist universities, colleges and educational institutions to develop capacity and enhance their effectiveness.

2 Replies to “Presidential Tenure and How it Intersects with Philanthropic Success”

  1. When hiring for a university president, I think the university should hire a person with sales management as one of background qualification as this would help an institution raise more money. This would put an institution in more jeopardy position as a sales person from corporate world would have no education experience; that kind of a president would not relate well to faculty and students due to lack of educational background.

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