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When Harvard’s presidential search committee goes to work in the coming months, it will have some competition.
University President Lawrence S. Bacow, who announced Wednesday that he plans to step down next year, has joined more than a half-dozen prominent higher education leaders who are set to depart soon, including the presidents of Dartmouth College, Columbia University, Tufts University, and MIT.
Many experts agree Covid-19 has played a role in spurring the departures, which will leave open many of higher education’s top jobs all at once.
“While you expect crises to come along, you don’t expect one that lasts two years — and that causes essentially the world to be affected in the way the pandemic did,” said former Missouri State University president Michael T. Nietzel. “This is of a whole different magnitude than would be normally expected.”
At least half of the Ivy League will see a presidential transition either this year or next. Dartmouth College’s Philip J. Hanlon and Columbia University’s Lee C. Bollinger both announced plans to depart in 2023, along with Bacow. Former University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann resigned in February to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Germany.
An array of local higher education leaders have also called it quits this year. MIT President L. Rafael Reif and Tufts President Anthony P. Monaco — who lead Harvard’s two closest neighbors — recently announced plans to depart at the end of the 2022 and 2023 academic years, respectively. The presidents of Amherst College, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and Emmanuel College have all also announced they will exit in the coming months.
L. Jay Lemons, president of the recruiting firm Academic Search, said an array of challenges — not just Covid-19 — may contribute to the mass exodus, pointing to state-level political headwinds some leaders face, among other issues.
“What might appear to be some clumping could be a bit a consequence of Covid, but is more likely a bit more complicated phenomenon than it may appear on the surface,” Lemons said.
Former Ohio University President Roderick J. McDavis, who leads the higher education executive search firm AGB Search, said the pandemic’s challenges may have caused leaders to depart earlier than originally anticipated.
“The last two years in higher education can be compared, really, to about three to five years in terms of the amount of stress that people have been under,” he said. “The fact that many of the presidents that probably had planned to serve a few more years have reached a point where they’re deciding to step down is very much a national trend.”
Some search firm executives said the pandemic may lead schools to prioritize crisis management skills when selecting new leaders.
Another potential factor in the wave of departures: age.
The American Council on Education, a leading education nonprofit, noted in its 2017 American College President Study that presidents were “slightly older” than their counterparts from five years ago. The report predicted higher turnover in top posts due to retirement and shorter tenures in the following years.
Bacow, 70, was tapped to serve as president of Harvard in December 2018 after previously serving as president of Tufts. Lemons called Bacow’s tenure at Harvard an “unexpected second act.”
In the first four years of his presidency, he steered the school through an array of crises — most notably, Covid-19 — and battled the virus twice himself.
Nietzel said broader shifts in higher education may have also influenced leaders, pointing to a growing erosion of trust in institutions — including universities.
“Major social institutions across the board have come under not just scrutiny, but face cynicism from a large segment of the public — and there’s been a particular aim at elite universities in that regard,” Nietzel said. “Harvard would be at the top of that list.”
“I think it does take a toll to defend universities against those kinds of attacks,” he said. “Understandably, presidents get tired.”
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