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Why University Presidents Are (Almost) Never Fired

City JournalEven amid recent events, deferential trustees are likely to keep incumbents in power.

Earlier this week, the presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and MIT beclowned themselves before the House education committee, collectively demurring with vacuous appeals to “context” when asked whether calls for the mass killing of a people constitute harassment under their institutional policies.

Their performance has put their future atop their respective organizations in doubt. Harvard alumnus and hedge-fund manager Bill Ackman, who called for major change at his alma mater shortly after Hamas’s brutal attack on Israel in October, has now called for the resignation of all three presidents—Harvard’s Claudine Gay, Penn’s Liz Magill, and MIT’s Sally Kornbluth—“in disgrace.” Ackman tweeted “One down” at media reports of Magill’s possible ouster from Penn, whose alumni have been unusually active in withholding funds and demanding accountability. Within 24 hours of Magill’s disastrous congressional testimony, a Penn donor, Ross L. Stevens of Stone Ridge Asset Management, pulled a $100 million gift from the university.

Elected officials were similarly outraged. Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor Josh Shapiro questioned Magill’s future at Penn, and New York Democratic senator Kirsten Gillibrand matched Ackman’s call for all three presidents’ resignations. Vice President Kamala Harris’s husband Doug Emhoff denounced the presidents’ “lack of moral clarity.”

Despite the media noise, the truth is that neither the three presidents who embarrassed themselves before Congress nor any other university president is likely to resign or be fired for their conduct. According to a confidential account of an emergency Penn Board of Trustees telephone meeting that was shared with me shortly after it was held on Thursday, only one trustee advanced a motion to change Penn’s leadership, though the board reportedly is contemplating further moves. MIT’s board, meanwhile, has expressed its “full and unreserved support” for Kornbluth, and Harvard’s trustees haven’t moved against Gay, though one member of her newly created anti-Semitism task force is resigning.

How can this be? Don’t trustees have the power to appoint and remove university presidents, who are merely employees? Unless you’re talking about the New College of Florida, whose board, now majority-appointed by Governor Ron DeSantis, fired its feckless president earlier this year, don’t bet on it. The system has effectively been reversed, with university administrations now exercising de facto power over their trustees.

Gay, Magill, and Kornbluth cut sorry figures as they cowered before millennial congresswoman (and Harvard alumna) Elise Stefanik in a Capitol Hill committee room. But back on their campuses, they control what trustees see on university policy and operational matters. In my three-year term as a member of a governing board of an American university abroad from 2018 to 2021, for example, I never had any sense from the president about the institution’s problems, student complaints, or the faculty’s concerns. After I tried to learn more, the board did not renew my appointment. I was never told why.

My treatment underscores an important point. Boards are self-perpetuating entities charged with identifying and appointing new members and are subject to rules their members adopt and implement. Potential troublemakers are easily isolated, sidelined, and removed (or not reappointed) under those rules. Even if the board’s rules are misapplied or not applied, no consequences follow. Who would sue over losing a voluntary position through force majeure or administrative sleight of hand, and—at least until now—what publication would care enough to report it?

Boards are even less responsive to trouble. In my 15 years of experience as a faculty member at three universities, I never met with any trustee, save one former board member who was ousted in a manner like my own after publicizing potentially criminal corruption allegations against university administrators. When we professors addressed trustees by letter with our concerns, we never received a response. Some years after I left one of those universities, the faculty did pass a no-confidence motion in an especially inept president. Backed by his loyal board, however, the president completed his term—an emblematic example of trustees’ propensity to vest nearly unlimited trust in higher administrators.

As “educators,” moreover, even highly compromised administrators can feign a moral high ground over the businessmen to whom they nominally answer. When donations are threatened, administrators can insist that “it’s not about the money,” floating the misleading argument that individual donations, even in the eight- or nine-figure range, are not so important where billion-dollar endowments are concerned. As we have seen, it takes a near-Holocaust-level event for that pose to weaken—and even after two months of unremitting controversy, no institution has yet reached a breaking point. “If the exodus of their largest donors and bad publicity over the past few months did not cause their trustees to act, then we should think about why we expect them to be fired now,” said Adrienne Price, a Penn graduate who is active in alumni affairs. Removing a progressive administrator, she said, “takes the jaws of life.”

It also goes without saying that as women (and in Gay’s case, a minority woman) in liberal professional environments, the three presidents on the ropes before Congress are virtually immune to criticism, especially from rich white-male trustees. If any of the three presidents under fire is actually removed, count on a bevy of X posts and mainstream media op-eds denouncing the sexism, racism, and patriarchy supposedly behind their firing.

Trustees with institutional family legacies, no matter how rich and powerful in their normal lives, also have an incentive to stay quiet. Speaking out may imperil those trustees’ younger relatives and protégés’ ability to get admitted to the schools in question. While financial heft can certainly smooth the path to elite university admission, until the golden letter arrives, family members have every reason to avoid controversy, even if it means failing to do their jobs as trustees.

Finally, inertia takes a terrible toll on university boards. University committee work is grueling and unrewarding, and volunteer trustees cannot be dragooned into doing it—as young faculty members can be, as a condition of career advancement. Trustees live busy personal and professional lives and would need to invest enormous time and energy to fix what is wrong. Replacing a university president does not simply involve firing an objectionable incumbent but entails up to a year-long process, involving candidate review, interviews, meetings, due diligence, public relations, and compliance.

Reforming our failing educational institutions is going to require a major effort. The real fix will arrive only when trustees—who, despite it all, still do hold the power—finally leave their comfort zones, act on what is right rather than convenient, and put in the work. The trustees of DeSantis’s New College do this, and they have been rewarded with death threats, professional denunciations, national media castigation, and a need for security details to escort them to meetings—all because of the changes they have made to institutional policies at a small liberal-arts college where they have the undisputed authority to act. And yet, these trustees have persevered and are fundamentally transforming their institution for the better. As university trustees around the country contemplate their next moves, New College is the model they should look to.

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