MUNCIE— President Paul Ferguson’s 17-month presidency may feel surprisingly short, especially after former President Jo Ann Gora’s 10 years, but it’s happened at Ball State before.
It’s just been a while.
Back in 1981 Jerry Anderson resigned after 18 months as president. According to university archives, Anderson’s was a forced resignation and classes were cancelled in the afternoon so students could attend the mandatory meeting when it was announced.
The average term length of the past 12 Ball State presidents, not including the interim ones, is almost 8 years. This lines up with the national average tenure, which is 8.5 years, according to The American Council on Education’s 2006 survey.
Some data has pointed to presidents holding shorter terms since 2006, though. American Council on Education reported the average term went down to 7 years in 2011.
Jamie Ferrare, a managing partner at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges in Washington D.C., said one reason for the shift to shorter terms is the demands of the position. Rather than focusing on academics, presidents now are responsible for fundraising, keeping up community and government relationships and building laws and policies, he said.
Seven or eight years is ideal, Ferrare said, because new presidents often are asked to create a strategic plan. It takes a few years to develop that curriculum and launch a fundraising campaign.
“It gives enough time for the strategic plan to be developed, implemented and measured,” he said.
A 17-month term, on the other hand, can be hard on a university, Ferrare said. It can create negative publicity for a school, with people questioning why the president left so soon. That can have an impact on recruiting.
“When they leave, it’s like you hit the restart button,” he said. A new president brings new direction, new goals and new hires.
The majority of the past 12 Ball State presidents served for fewer than five years. The longest term was John Emens, who held the position for 23 years, from 1945-1968. Five past presidents, including Gora, served for 10 or more years.Gora might have made the presidency feel stable during her tenure, but back before she was hired in 2004 Blaine Brownell left after four years of his presidency and Beverly Pitts was hired as an interim for seven months.
Indiana University has kept most of its presidents for longer than two years. According to the school’s website, the most recent president to leave in two years was John Merle Coulter, who served from 1891-1893, before leaving for the University of Chicago. The shortest term at IU was Alfred Ryors, who resigned after six months back in 1853.
It’s a similar story for Purdue, which has kept its presidents for longer than two years since 1875, when Abram Shortridge left after 18 months because of his failing health.
Looking elsewhere in the Mid-American Conference, Ohio, Akron, Toledo and Bowling Green have each had a president stay for two years or less at some point.
Eastern Michigan has had more turnover in the past 20, including four interim presidents, one of which is the current president. John Fallon was the last permanent hire to leave in two years, and he left in 2007 after a student was murdered by another student.
Interestingly, Fallon came to work at Ball State as an associate vice president of economic development and community engagement for a short period before resigning in 2015.
Short presidencies are unusual, said Michael Poliakoff, vice president of policy for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. It causes “dislocation” and starting another search is expensive, he said.
“A university that is in transition is sometimes a very volatile place,” he said. “I think it’s safe to say that higher education is not known for agility and quick responsiveness.”
Peter Eckel, senior fellow and director of leadership programs at the University of Pennsylvania, agreed.
When a president is hired to serve for a very short tenure it’s often when a school is in deep trouble, “which is not the case at Ball State,” Eckel said. “They are on a very strong upward trajectory.”
He also said it’s usually difficult for a president to follow a long-serving, successful president, “which was the case with Jo Ann Gora.”
It’s best for boards of trustees to be as clear as they can about transitions. “Otherwise, people will start to speculate,” Eckel added. “But personnel issues get tricky. Given that personnel issues are involved, it’s hard to say very much publicly.”