Can Colleges Share a President?

College systems and consortia have shared academic services, libraries, transportation, even a campus. Would they be able to share a president?

July 24, 2020
 
istock.com/brokentone

The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education recently announced plans to integrate operations at three pairs of universities.

The proposals are the latest attempt by the ailing system to cut costs systemwide. During a financial review process, the system will look at the impact and potential cost savings of shared leadership, faculty and staff, enrollment management, reporting lines, and budgets.

The universities under consideration for consolidation insist that they will maintain their individual campus identities. Details of the integration processes are still very much up in the air.

PASSHE’s announcement has stoked conversation about what shared academic and administrative leadership would look like and whether it could be successful. Dennis Jones, president emeritus of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, supports the system’s effort.

“I applaud what they’re trying to do, because they’re not trying to lose institutional identity, they’re trying to find ways to make the services they provide, I would say, broader and more sustainable,” Jones said.

He pointed to a similar process by the community colleges in Connecticut, which are undergoing a years-long consolidation process to bring all 12 community colleges under a single, accredited Connecticut State Community College.

David Levinson, interim president of the Connecticut State Community College, said the colleges were also facing financial pressure to make a change. The new college is seeking to save $28 million over five years.

“We weren’t pleased with the rates of student success in our colleges, and we also felt, and feel to this day, that our resources were being depleted in terms of finance and wanting to keep all 12 institutions going,” Levinson said.

Independent universities have long shared resources in some way or another. The Five College Consortium in Massachusetts -- made up of Amherst College, Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst -- shares a library system, intercampus transportation, joint departments and programs and promotes cross-registration. There are dozens of e-learning consortia that share online education technology and programs across campuses.

While cohesion among universities within one system or consortium is imperative to success, shared leadership comes with its own set of challenges, Jones said. Even the Claremont Colleges, which share a campus in Southern California, still have seven presidents.

Some efforts to unite president positions at the State University of New York several years ago met stiff resistance -- a state legislator took credit in 2011 when SUNY administrators killed plans to combine the presidencies at the Canton and Potsdam campuses.

The New York system followed through with plans to install the president at SUNY Delhi, Candace Vancko, as head of SUNY Cobleskill. But it reverted back to separate presidents in 2013. It also had the head of SUNY Institute of Technology, Bjong Wolf Yeigh, lead Morrisville State College for a short time but ultimately moved back to separate presidencies at those institutions as well.

“It’s the president’s office that is the hardest thing to pull off,” Jones said. “If a president tries to serve two institutions, they’re suspect in both communities because the community doesn’t know who they represent anymore.”

A Case Study in Joint Leadership

Ellen Chaffee simultaneously served as president of Valley City State University and Mayville State University in North Dakota for nine years. Now a senior consultant and senior fellow at AGB Consulting, Chaffee said she’d never planned to be a college president, let alone two at once.

“People would say, ‘I don’t know how you do it,’” Chaffee said. “Afterwards, looking back, my phrase was: I don’t know why I did it. I don’t know why I allowed it to happen.”

The logistics of managing two colleges were difficult. Valley City and Mayville are 75 miles apart and Chaffee bounced back and forth between them for a week at a time. She had three homes: one in Valley City, another in Mayville and a third where her husband lived, in Bismarck.

She almost never saw the provost, who also traveled between campuses on an opposite schedule to Chaffee. It was the 1990s, and Zoom and other teleworking options were not available yet.

“I had several names for the book I was going to write,” Chaffee said. “One was ‘the bag lady of the plains,’ because I had a bag of things to take to Valley City, things to return to Mayville, clothes I would need for this event at the other place, etc.”

Shared leadership for Valley City and Mayville was the result of statewide belt tightening. In 1989, the North Dakota Legislature raised taxes, and in 1990, “the people revolted,” Chaffee said. State agencies were pushed to find savings in response to the outcry, part of which included moving Valley City and Mayville under a shared administration.

“We didn’t have a mandate except ‘save money. Get as much savings as you can. Figure out a way to do this because there’s only so much money and you’re more or less at the bottom of the pecking order,’” Chaffee said.

At one time, the two universities shared only nine total administrators. No one, including Chaffee, was paid extra for working two positions.

Public relations was a challenge. Valley City and Mayville “hated each other,” she said.

She found ways to manage. She had a sweatshirt with "Valley City" written on the left side and "Mayville" on the right. At football games between the two, Chaffee would sit first on the side of the home team and then switch throughout the game to the side of whichever team was behind.

“Then they don’t want you to sit with them. They’re not jealous that you’re with the other guy -- they’re glad because that means they’re winning,” she said.

In 2001, the state Legislature had some discretionary spending and the colleges were able to write proposals to capture some of the funds. Chaffee brought in five outside college presidents as consultants, and “by the time they all got to the Fargo airport, they pretty much decided this had to stop.”

In 2002, the universities switched back to having two presidents. Chaffee stayed on as Valley City’s president for another six years.

“I guess it’s better than closing,” Chaffee said of the shared presidency, “but it’s certainly far down my list of desirable things to happen to an organization.”

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