Managing the Presidency Through the Arc of Time

President Putnam and Leadership Team

This article was originally published in the winter 2023 ​issue of Trusteeship magazine. View a PDF version of this publication.

I am the 21st president of an institution that is nearly 170 years old. And I enjoy an incredibly rich inheritance. My principal task now is to steward that inheritance for future generations.

My experience may be a bit unusual as it relates to relationships with past college presidents. In 2010, when I began my appointment as president of Central College in Pella, Iowa, my four immediate predecessors all were available to me. Their service to the college dated back to 1960. The connections from this long chain of succession gave me the advantage of 50 years of context and perspective about their work and the contributions of others.

Arend (Don) Lubbers began his service to Central in 1960. At the age of 29, he was, at the time, the youngest college president in the United States. His service at the college extended through 1969. After leaving Central, he was the Grand Valley State University president for 30 years. Ken Weller succeeded Don. During his presidency, Ken authored the Division III athletics philosophy still used across the nation today. He retired from Central in 1990. Bill Wiebenga came next and held Central’s presidency until 1997; then David Roe from 1998 until I arrived in 2010. Ken and Bill have since passed away though their voices still echo in my mind.

David’s generosity of time and energy in support of our transition was immeasurable. I continue to be grateful for his ongoing encouragement. Don, now 91 years old, stays in touch and is always eager to “talk shop.” Whenever we see each other, I am overwhelmed by the realization that the staying power of our presidential leadership at Central reaches back 62 years.

Understanding the origins of Central’s wide-ranging programs, services, traditions, and activities has been critically important to me. To be sure, others associated with the college ably tell the tales of the past, but a former president’s perspective is uniquely insightful. The antecedents of decisions made, the risk factors considered and the anticipated benefits, both realized and unrealized, are instructive in understanding and interpreting all that I have in my care today. Campus memories fade as fluid participation through time erodes the nuances and contours of prior intents. Presidents, however, remember the details, the hidden realities, the complexities, and the controversies long since settled.

Central was founded in 1853. Typical of the early years at colleges founded in the latter half of the 19th century, presidential turnover was common as fledging institutions worked through the uncertainties of the start-up phase to a firmer foundation as an established college. Since 1925, however, I am just the eighth president to serve the college during nearly a century.

My interview as a presidential candidate in 2009 at Central was the first time I had ever visited Iowa. I had no connection to the college before then. I arrived in Pella recognizing that virtually everyone I met knew more about the college than I did. The culture of continuity and stability I have inherited did not emerge by accident. It has been the long practice of this academic community to view the college through the arc of time and to share that saga as new and increasingly diverse participants are welcomed into the institution’s life. I am ever mindful this pattern has benefited me in understanding and owning the work of my predecessors and, in turn, leading the college through considerable change.

The past is not the enemy of the future. Continuity is incredibly powerful. When that continuity is severed, however, the consequences are real. Recovering continuity begins with acknowledging something lost must be regained, and it takes a concerted effort to make that a reality.

The Churning of Presidents Is Undermining the Presidency

I recently wrote an essay titled “Stewardship of the Presidency.” The piece, published by Inside Higher Ed in fall 2022, shares that “while I certainly have presidential colleagues who have equaled or exceeded my years of leadership service, I have become increasingly concerned by the number of public and private institutions that have appointed as many as four presidents during the dozen years I have been at Central.”

The pattern in the state of Iowa is instructive. Apart from small, specialized institutions, Iowa is home to 29 public and private four-year colleges and universities. Since I moved to the state in 2010, 17 of these institutions either have the same president serving or encountered just one presidential transition. I would argue that in each of these cases, the transitions were timely and thus far bear the earmarks of healthy continuity. Twelve of these institutions have engaged in three or four transitions over the past 12 years. While I am sure these short-term tenures were not in anyone’s plan, the consequences can be profound. The pace changes. Plans are abandoned. Senior administrative leadership becomes less stable as the quick succession of presidents also leads to the transitions of vice presidents and deans. The cascading effects are real and typically run deep into the organization. Sometimes this is unavoidable. It is always unfortunate.

As I wrote for Inside Higher Ed, “my intent is not to argue that all college and university presidential appointments could or should be long-term. My concern is that the accelerating turnover rate across the postsecondary landscape is breeding more turnover. When an institution becomes accustomed to frequent presidential transitions, commitment to sustained leadership erodes. Breaking that cycle requires a concerted effort.

“As I survey the landscape, I see institutions with sustained presidential leadership for ten or more years tangibly benefiting from the capacity to undertake and succeed with long-term, large-scale initiatives. The intangibles also are compelling as I engage in conversations with those who have enjoyed long tenures. Their institutional knowledge runs deep, their forged relationships across constituencies are sturdy, and their confidence in pressing forward despite the challenges is reassuring.” They are more likely to calm turbulent waters. Rarely do they lack energy for the tasks at hand, and they remain enthusiastic about the work ahead. Those angling toward retirement are thoughtful about timing and provide ample notice in service of a smooth transition.

“By contrast, I also have learned from presidential colleagues who have come to office following multiple, sometimes turbulent, transitions,” I disclosed in “Stewardship of the Presidency.” “Most are well prepared, creative, and energetic. Some, however, buckle beneath the weight of conflicting expectations. They find it difficult to metabolize residual negative energy and struggle to find their leadership voice in this new context. They seem to be reacting more than responding. The tyranny of the urgent appears overwhelming. Too many are forced to look over their shoulders rather than toward the horizon. Despite the best intentions, support from the campus community and board feels tentative and conditional. In these settings, the chain of leadership continuity has been broken to the point that institutional energy moves sideways rather than forward.

“Breaking this pattern is an enormous undertaking for a new president and can only be achieved with the eager commitment of the governing board. While the advantages of presidential continuity may be self-evident, the pathway may not be visible to those who must travel it.”

Deliberate interventions are needed to reset the course of institutions experiencing frequent presidential transitions and to prevent others from drifting in that direction.

The relevant frameworks for public and private institutions in addressing the health and vitality of a presidency are different. Independent colleges and universities with self-perpetuating boards may have more freedom in managing a presidency. Still, public institutions can adopt similar patterns despite the structural and political dynamics that sometimes inform decisions regarding the service of an individual president or the management of a presidency through time.

In either case, it begins with a fundamental change in perspective.

The Presidency Is an Institution within an Institution

We misunderstand the president’s role when we see a president’s appointment as the presidency. They are two vastly different things.

The presidency of a college or university should be viewed as an institution within an institution. The role is intergenerational; incoming presidents collect our inheritance, embrace it for what it is, and then seek to build on that inheritance for our successors. When we adopt this perspective, we set the expectation we are settling in for the long haul and will work to tackle the major issues and opportunities that may take years to address.

My original contract at Central was for a four-year term. The college’s board and I agreed we would finalize the decision to extend my service beyond the fourth year by the end of the third. This move allowed for a thoughtful transition if my appointment concluded at that time. As the time for the decision approached, the board advanced a proposal to move my appointment to an “evergreen” contract that provided for automatic annual renewal subject to timely notice provisions obligating the board and me to collaborate on a transition.

I welcomed this design. It meant we were, in effect, saying to each other, “let’s settle in for the foreseeable future.” We have now been in the same contract for a decade. Looking back, this two-step contractual process allowed us to get acquainted, gain confidence, and set an initial course through a defined term contract. We then shifted to a tactic that optimized an ongoing shared commitment rooted in mutual respect and trust.

The presidency of a college or university with this type of evergreen arrangement has many advantages. It sends a message to the campus community we are all looking at the long-term horizon—and the effort put forward to tackle big projects will be worth it. The design enables solution thinking that is less frenetic and unpredictable as novel conditions present themselves. It encourages a more reflective and responsive attitude as plans and decisions are made and enacted. It also allows the time and space needed to anticipate opportunities and challenges as the time line is extended.

Foundational to this mind-set is the board’s temperament. In my professional travels, I have encountered many governing boards, and all have unique personalities informed by many years of deliberation and action.

“When do you think we will see measurable results if you are appointed?” Dave Wesselink, Central’s board chair at the time, asked me during my final interview with Central’s presidential search committee in October 2009.

“I would anticipate some measurable results after about three years, but more likely five years,” I responded.

He simply nodded.

I gave a straightforward, honest answer I believed to be realistic given the charge set before me, and my subsequent experience has reinforced this view. As it turned out, my answer aligned with the board’s temperament that continues to embrace change through the long arc of time.

Managing a presidency is about receiving an inheritance and leaving a legacy. The board’s partnership is vital and allows for substantive and meaningful change to be designed and implemented. The critical element is that it takes time.

Understanding the Governing Board as an Institution within and Institution

I have participated in two AGB Institutes for Board Chairs and Presidents during my tenure at Central. Both were quite worthwhile. The most impactful aspects on both occasions included the luxury of time afforded to me and the board chair to discuss essential topics of interest, compare notes on ideas, consider the advice offered through the plenary sessions, and share our candid thoughts on the work ahead.

The other reward was hearing other institutions’ perspectives, experiences, and practices when ideas were shared around discussion tables. The institute effectively models the need for time—time to read, write, think, and discuss. The same is true for governing boards. Too often, I hear references to efficiency more than effectiveness as I speak with my colleagues. While many of the formal and ministerial roles of a board can be condensed and streamlined with great effect, the deliberative processes of the board are and should be a bit slower and more thoughtful. Boards should be comfortable with ambiguity, generative of an idea, and forward-thinking.

Again, this takes time. It takes time to know and be known and to invest in developing shared vocabulary, understanding, and experience. Learning the institutional narrative requires rehearsing meaningful and relevant stories without being burdensome. Reliable patterns of interaction undergird the presentation of information, the analysis and synthesis of complex ideas and the consistency of decision-making processes.

Central’s board of trustees has a sense of continuity that reaches back in time. While there is a healthy transition pattern for trustees, maintaining continuity also is a commitment. The curating process of Central’s board is managed by the Committee on Trusteeship, which takes its role quite seriously. The conventions, traditions, and patterns sustained through time also make the governing board an institution within an institution. Our board has received recommendations over the years to impose strict term limits. Every time, the board has declined to adopt such limits. Central’s board prefers a consistent evaluation process, a willingness to engage trustees on their roles and responsibilities, and a determination to gracefully conclude a term of service when appropriate. Decisions regarding the composition of the board are informed by criteria that ensure wide-ranging perspectives and diversity in all its forms.

Most of Central’s trustees seek the counsel of board leaders when considering another term of service to ensure the needs and interests of the board are upheld. Emeritus trustees enjoy continuing status and yet limited involvement in matters under consideration. They get the access they deserve, maintain awareness about the board’s ongoing work, and are included in many social occasions that preserve relationships and forge new ones with trustees more freshly appointed.

I also benefit from regular conversations with the three board chairs who have served in the role during my presidency. I mentioned Dave Wesselink, now both an emeritus chair and emeritus trustee. He overlapped with my first year in office, concluding six years as chair and 31 years as a trustee. His successor, Lanny Little, had already been identified when I was selected and aided in my transition to the college. Lanny served for seven years as chair and was recently named chair emeritus. He remains on the board as the chair of the Committee on Trusteeship and as an elder statesman among his colleagues with 35 years of service. A year before Lanny completed his term as chair, Tej Dhawan was appointed as vice chair and chair-elect, providing a smooth transition. Tej is now in his fifth year as chair and has served 20 years on the board.

While I regularly consult with Tej as our current chair on all matters of interest and concern, I also maintain contact with Dave and Lanny as important conversation partners. Occasionally, I will request a special meeting of a group I call “The Oracle of the Three Chairs” to seek advice and counsel. These three chairs know each other and the institution well through their years of service together. They are an immensely beneficial resource for me and embody the temperament of the board to respond and not react, to generate light and not heat and think through the long arc of time. They are the deepest well of wisdom I have available.

Manifested in their collective service as board chairs is the same continuity I have enjoyed as president. They are all alumni of the institution but from different decades. They each have had familiarity in managing complex organizations. They have successfully imparted the core values of the board in fulfilling its requisite roles and responsibilities. They have ensured the work of the board is focused and disciplined. They also love to have fun. The board enjoys a splendid sense of community because they have high confidence in the integrity of their governance and the reliability of the systems bracing it.

The presidency and the governing board are both legacy institutions. The presidency is temporarily invested in an individual and sustained by succession. The governing board is collectively held but also sustained by succession. In this way, they are complementary institutions in which the former is charged with the legacy of management and the latter with the legacy of governance. When both institutions are understood to transcend the immediacy of the moment, they become a highly effective partnership in stewarding a well-aligned organization through time that honors its shared traditions and embraces collective innovation.

Managing the Presidency Is a Team Sport

The senior administration is critical to the functioning of the presidency and the governing board.

I do not rely on a cabinet structure. Such an approach feels to me like a deliberative governing body seeking to undertake the tasks of management. Instead, I employ a senior leadership team composed of five vice presidents and an executive assistant. The director of athletics reports directly to me too. He interacts with the senior leadership team frequently and is an adjunct to this team. Many styles and structures exist across higher education to extend the reach of management into and across the organization. The exact schema is not as important as the principle that the senior management of a college or university, however conceived, invariably has the responsibility to manage the presidency.

The sense of collective responsibility reshapes the leadership conversation. In this vein at Central, we do not ask, “What does the president want to do?” Instead, we ask, “How will the presidency respond?”

This does not dilute or diminish the president or the presidency. Shared responsibility for the presidency strengthens the president’s role as the decisions are more deeply shared. There also is no lack of authority or accountability for the president in this model. What is different is that deliberation and decision-making processes deepen the sense of responsibility for all team members. As one member once shared, “I have never had a greater sense of autonomy as a leader, but I have also never had a greater sense of accountability.”

As I compare notes with presidential colleagues, many of them work in a more bilateral exchange with each member of the senior administration. Decisions made in one-on-one settings are then reported to the other members.

Some years ago, a university president asked me to visit his campus and interview members of his executive team. It was an odd request because he refused to tell me what he wanted from the intelligence. He merely noted he was interested in exploring their shared work. Intrigued by the request, I traveled to the campus and began interviewing members of the team about their work. Top of mind for them was a recent process of decision-making in which they all had agreed to proceed in adding a new program of study that would involve considerable institutional investment. I decided to use this as a case study with each of them.

As I explored the decision-making process, I discovered each team member was thinking and acting in a manner that was independent of the others:

  • When I asked the chief academic officer about the efficacy of the decision, she indicated it was a good decision as long as the chief enrollment officer could assure adequate student recruitment and the chief financial officer would adequately fund the program.
  • When I talked to the chief enrollment officer, he indicated the program could be successful as long as the chief academic officer could construct a program that would attract students and the chief financial officer would support the financial aid needed to launch the program.
  • The chief financial officer told me it would work well as long as the program could generate enough marginal revenue to support its direct expenses and add to the bottom line of the university budget.

This team was neither integrated nor aligned. Their group leadership had not produced a comprehensive analysis they all could own. It was why the president asked me to visit, and my written report informed their subsequent reflections about their work. My colleague had placed a mandate before his management team, and they complied to give him what he wanted, but no one was managing the presidency with a collective mind-set. This was one of the more meaningful learning opportunities of my career.

Senior administrators must individually and collectively be students of their practice. Central’s leadership team often shares readings. We also look carefully at the landscape of change surrounding us and engage in rigorous debate on matters before us. We work with a set of guiding principles that outline the expectations they can have of me and each other. In addition to simply understanding the procedural aspects of our work, we clearly know we are an interdependent, integrated, and aligned team working together to steward the presidency. The bylaws of the college make clear the president is responsible for “all educational and managerial affairs.” Apart from the specific matters delegated to the faculty pertaining to curriculum, instruction and personnel, the presidency bears the weight of responsibility for the overall well-being of the college in all aspects. That is too big for me to carry alone.

Only a team can do it.

In collectively managing the presidency, the senior leadership team is, by extension, serving the governing board. Its members are the nexus of these two legacy institutions. Each vice president has specific committee support responsibilities and often interacts with board committee chairs. They prepare information and analysis for board deliberations and deliver presentations to support board education and development. By incorporating senior administrators into the management of the presidency, they are visible and present to the board as well-informed and competent leaders in their roles. This familiarity naturally strengthens the confidence of the board. Though the president embodies the presidential role and its concurrent responsibilities, the management of the presidency relies on an interactive and interdependent organization that requires integration and alignment.

The reward for forging a team that is willing and able to manage a presidency is the sustained commitment it engenders in each member. The senior leadership team I lead presents an average of
27 years of experience in higher education, including an average of 14 years of service at Central. There is no way to quantify the returns of that kind of wisdom.

Mark Putnam Inaguration

Mark Putnam (center) was installed as Central College’s 21st president on Friday, Oct. 22, 2010. He joined an esteemed line of Central presidents, including Central’s 17th president Arend “Don” Lubbers (left), who led Central from 1960-1969, and 20th president David Roe (right), who served the college from 1998-2010. Both Lubbers and Roe remain connected to the college and Putnam. The relationship Putnam developed with predecessors, including the late Ken Weller, have provided more than 60 years of experience to inform current perspectives.

A Case Study for Managing through the Arc of Time

“How do you reposition an institution with respect to its competition,” I was once asked.

“All at once,” I replied.

Advancing a college or university requires a comprehensive approach. The answer was most unsatisfying to the individual inquiring since he wanted the single “silver bullet.” The reality is higher education institutions are highly complex and composed of loosely coupled interacting systems.

Now in my 40th year of a career in higher education, I am persuaded that an attempt at near-term targeted change, sometimes described as “low-hanging fruit” or a “quick hit,” will be less fruitful and less impactful than we often anticipate or need. Colleges and universities are notorious for having high inertia. When they are at rest, it is tough to animate them, but when they are in motion, it can be hard to control them. Carefully planned institutional change that seeks to manage institutional inertia requires a sustained effort over years. That is not to say meaningful progress and success are unattainable in the near term but managing through an arc of time involves many moving parts that must be regulated, retooled, and realigned. Unintended consequences, collateral impacts and cascading effects are ever-present risks in organizations as complex as colleges and universities.

I often entertain questions about Central’s announcement in 2019 to change our tuition policy and approach to affordability. At the time, Central’s published tuition was $38,600. We reduced tuition to $18,600 for all students beginning in 2020. The decision continues to serve the college well.

Those who have asked about the journey to the decision and the eventual implementation are shocked by what they hear. Before the board adopted the resolution to change the policy, we completed six years of research that included three major brand and price studies. The board considered the question carefully over two years and benefited from two in-depth presentations by an outside expert. I also crafted a white paper to comprehensively evaluate the potential benefits and risks.

Each of the four primary committees of the board spent considerable time vetting the analysis and recommendations, bringing their unique perspective back to the full board. Once the board reached its decision in October 2018, everyone associated with the project signed a nondisclosure agreement since we knew it would take another year to realign the organization to accommodate the transition.

Every inch of the institution was affected. We changed our approach to admitting students, undertook a concurrent branding initiative, updated programs on campus, created a communications strategy, and prepared a comprehensive implementation plan. Once the announcement was made, we took another year to get all the systems amended and in place. From beginning to end, it was a seven-year journey that began with many more questions than answers. We gradually addressed these questions through extensive research and analysis and eventually executed a plan over a realistic time horizon.

Some inquiring institutions have indicated they intend to fast-track a process and announce within months that they are implementing a change in tuition policy. While it need not take six years, I tell them this story and encourage them to pump the brakes and think carefully about comprehensive risk management. Patience is a virtue when considering systemic change.

Three Presidents at NCAA Tourney.

Integrating and Aligning Legacy Institutions

The presidency and the governing board, ably supported by the work of senior administrative leaders, foster organization-wide integration and alignment that can be enduring. Each plays a critical role in maintaining the appropriate balance between management and governance. More importantly, all involved must understand they work for their successors.

The governing board’s broad oversight and retained authority ensure integrity in all aspects but focuses interest on the matters that are the most far-reaching on the time horizon. Its members should be thinking about the mission, purpose, vision, and values. Their attention is necessarily drawn to long-term institutional vitality and viability as expressed in the future of academic disciplines and professional fields of study, fundraising and resource development, endowment philosophy and policy, and facility and infrastructure planning. While they take a keen interest in the president’s performance, they also are mindful of the presidency and how the current president is setting the stage for the next occupant of the office.

The presidency has the task of facilitating organizational effectiveness. It bears the responsibility of ensuring the governing board can be maximally effective in decision-making. Clear, consistent, and transparent presentation of data, information, and evidence is essential in enabling the governing board to do its best work. The management task of the presidency is set in the context of the governing board’s overarching ambition and direction for the institution. Animating that mandate involves carefully translating and articulating the long-range plan into concrete actions ordered properly for the campus.

All of this takes time.

I often tell people that if I am doing my job well, I am focused on eighth-graders since they are five years away from arriving on campus. This perspective well serves the presidency in guiding the work of management. Similarly, the governing board is doing well when it is focused on eight-year-olds since they are 10 years away from enrolling. The result of governing set on this time line provides optimal stability and continuity and sets the proper context of leadership for the presidency.

Critics of this perspective will argue we don’t have the luxury of time, given the challenges facing colleges and universities. I remind them higher education has been on the brink of disaster since the University of Bologna was founded in 1088. Our natural tendency is to overestimate short-term trends and underestimate long-term trends. I see no compelling evidence the current age is more or less threatening to our institutions than we have seen throughout history.

Our institutions are resilient and adaptive at a pace and timing suitable to their standing as organizations that have outlasted most other corporations, many well beyond a century. It is true not all will survive, but that has always been the case. However, the persistent reach for low-hanging fruit will not be satisfying or nourishing; the endless pursuit of quick hits will often result in misses. The historic landscape of higher education is littered with them. Yet I know that which matters most: We are still here.

Regaining or maintaining institutional stability will come in part through leadership continuity. When managed effectively through the arc of time, the presidency and governing authority form the bedrock of institutional strength.

This is our best hope for the years to come.

About the Author

Mark Putnam

I'm the lucky individual who carries the title, 21st president of Central College in Pella, Iowa. Passionate about higher education and the issues facing it and the world today, I hope to invoke an engaging conversation with all who are ready to dig in, make a difference and build for the future. Share your thoughts. I'm listening and interested.