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Tips to Help VPs Survive Under a New President
Volume 14(8), p.8-9

Sarah Gibbard Cook

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More and more women are reaching the upper tiers of higher education administration. Being a VP is a whole new ballgame, and women are learning how to play. Fortunately, survival as a VP is a matter of relationships, where conventional wisdom says women should excel.

Cabinet members don't have tenure. Presidents get to choose their VPs, and competence doesn't guarantee job security. With college and university presidents serving only four or five years on average, VPs have to adapt at least that often to a new president's style and goals. Their relationship with the president is the top factor in getting and keeping a cabinet-level job.

At the NASPA meeting in Tampa in March, past and present VPs of student affairs presented three different angles on adapting to presidential change, which can help all VPs to survive under a new president.

  • Dr. Lou Stark, VP for student affairs at Coe College IA
  • Dr. Bill Flanagan, VP for student affairs and dean of students at Beloit College WI 
  • Dr. Joseph Marron, professor /program director of Educational Leadership & Higher Education in the graduate school of education at Alliant International University in San Diego CA.

Surviving a change of school

Change involves risk. Each of the four times Dr. Lou Stark changed employers, he had to navigate a different president's personality and leadership style.

Even before taking a job, he'd research the president. What do her speeches and Web site say about her values? What's her view of out-of-class learning? Where does she put resources? Presidents shape board appointments; if she's been there a while, who's been appointed trustee during that time?

"We have to understand very clearly where the president is coming from," he said. No longer do presidents routinely rise from the faculty ranks. Boards may also choose presidents from business, the military, law, clergy and not-for-profit foundations. Which sector the president comes from is a good predictor of her style.

Once in the new job, Stark made a point of keeping the president informed. They need the big picture, including successes and failures.

Even where your reporting line runs through the provost, find ways to keep the president aware. Invite her to key events. You don't want your future or the fate of your division to hang on the provost's goodwill. Develop key allies on the educational faculty; they have the president's inherent respect. "We're going to survive only if we have allies," he said.

Staying put while presidents change

New presidents like to clean house and put in their own people. Surviving 25 years at Beloit has been a feat for Dr. Bill Flanagan. He's served there under four-and-a-half presidents; there have been only ten in the college's 159 year history.

"This is a dance. It's the building of a relationship," he said. Sometimes you leave the dance frustrated; other times you can tango for a while.

In working with a president, the number one issue is whether she knows you're committed to the school and its mission. If she doesn't see that, she'll conclude you're part of the problem instead of the solution.

When a presidential search begins, you can pick up cues on what trustees are looking for. A fundraiser? A "golden Rolodex" of big name contacts? An architect of change or of continuity?

If you get a chance to be on the search committee, do your homework on every candidate. Focus the interview on her successes. Remember, she's evaluating you from the first hello-and so are her spouse and kids. Above all, don't come across as a threat. She knows that key cabinet members can make or break her presidency.

 Between the new president's selection and her arrival, provide all the information she'll need about your area of responsibility. Include successes, failures and data. Establish a relationship of mutual respect, trust and professionalism. Make it clear you're on top of things and will support her. "Chances are if they have a sense that you have your ducks in a row, they'll leave you alone," he said.

What if it doesn't work out?

Sometimes you can do everything right and it still doesn't work out. After serving five presidents at five different schools, Dr. Joseph Marron is now on the faculty at the same university where he was last a VP.

On August 1, 2002, he met with Alliant's new president. The one who'd hired him was retiring and everyone had high hopes of the new one. Still, the senior cabinet members as a group hired an employment attorney on retainer, just in case.

When the president told him he was out as VP, he had about ten minutes to decide his response. The paperwork was ready, slid across the Dr. Joseph Marron desk for him to sign. It offered him a year's sabbatical with full pay, seemingly a great offer.

Was that what he wanted? "The best thing to do is to keep one's head," he said. Without accepting the president's offer, he returned to his office and phoned the attorney. It was the hardest thing he'd ever done, he said, but he knew he had to do it.

This story is not unique. It could happen to any VP, no matter how dedicated and popular.

Expectations can sometimes conflict. VPs expect a president to bring vision, leadership, commitment to the campus, fundraising skills, integrity and honesty, perseverance and patience, communication skills, energy, willingness to learn, creativity, management ability and humor.

Presidents in turn want their VPs to:

  • Be loyal and honest to the president
  • Share the president's enthusiasm
  • Support and push the president
  • Not waste the president's time
  • Make sure the train runs on time
  • Keep their eye on the ball
  • Not be professionally arrogant

Sometimes there's not a perfect match between what the president wants in a VP and what she thinks she sees.

Plan ahead what you'll do if it happens to you. Be purposeful and realistic, knowing your strengths and weaknesses. What are your priorities? Would you rather switch to faculty on the same campus, or never lay eyes on that school again in your life?

No detail is too small to negotiate. If you want to seek a job elsewhere, how long will you stay on payroll during the search? Will the school still pay for professional development and memberships, sending you to conferences during your job hunt?

If you want to stay and switch to faculty, think about which department? What job? Will you keep your benefits? What about tenure?

Later the same day that the president told him he was losing his job, she came to his office to ask how they could make this work. Marron had children and didn't want to leave San Diego. Remaining VP wasn't an option. By 3:00 that afternoon he was a faculty member in the Graduate School of Education.

How to be a great ex-VP

His new faculty colleagues expected him to act like a VP in exile. Instead he worked very hard to be the best professor he could be. He played by the faculty rules, gave papers at juried conferences and got good student evaluations. His survival advice to former VPs: "Live your role. Be very good at whatever you've decided to do."

All relationships change. Your former colleagues may be tempted to fall back on you for support. Relate to them only from your new role, as friends. "No matter what, don't butt in. Even if you see good work that you've done being changed, don't butt in:' he said.

Your job change impacts your former staff, whose jobs may disappear under your successor. Remember the people who worked for you. Try to be prompt and helpful when they ask you to write a reference.

Whether you switch to faculty, get a job elsewhere or take early retirement, leave with a smile and don't burn bridges. The new president doesn't want a public battle and neither should you. Tell her you'll work with her to make it win-win. People will say you took the high road.

Presidents come and go. The one who ousted Marron as VP was gone nine months later. Women who reach upper administration need to cultivate their relationship with each president and prepare for the possibility that it just won't work out.

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