In a single week, the leaders of Auburn, Bennett, Marist and Muhlenberg are all out — gone the day transitions are announced — after short tenures.
Within days of each other, four university presidents left their respective institutions with little warning. At each institution, administrators offered only minimal, and sometimes no, explanation for their departure.
On Wednesday, Marist College President David Yellen announced his departure after three years in office and was immediately replaced by an interim president. The same day, Muhlenberg College announced John I. Williams Jr. would be replaced by an interim president after four years as president. Friday saw the departure of Phyllis Worthy Dawkins after serving three years as Bennett College president and, finally, President Steven Leath of Auburn University announced a mutual decision to part ways with the university. Leath had been with Auburn since 2017.
In addition to the obvious similarities in the timing and nature of these departures, one other factor tied them together: an immediate departure, rather than the usual transitional time period. Each announcement lauded the work of the outgoing president in similar ways, but none shared much information on why the departure was occurring — or on the lack of transitional period.
In the case of Auburn, Leath had been with the university for a relatively short tenure and had headed up a number of popular initiatives. During his previous tenure as Iowa State University president, Leath was known for fund-raising expertise and boosting research support — while also building ties to students. He spent weekends at Iowa State patrolling popular campus areas to verify students were drinking responsibly and behaving appropriately. During Leath’s tenure at Auburn, the university received Carnegie R1 Designation among the top research universities in the U.S.
Auburn Student Government President Mary Margaret Turton said in an emailed statement that Leath had made a “lasting impact” on the university.
“The student body thanks Dr. Leath for taking Auburn to new heights in the student experience and research expansion,” Turton said. Local press coverage suggested Leath had many other supporters among students and faculty members.
Nonetheless, little explanation was given by Auburn for his exit — much like his counterparts at Marist, Muhlenberg and Bennett. Bennett has been fighting to hold on to its accreditation, but Dawkins has been widely praised for raising money to help the college.
Brian C. Mitchell, president and managing principal of higher education consulting firm Academic Innovators, said these instances of quick presidential transition with little explanation were unusual. Mitchell previously served as president of Bucknell University.
“These are not places that are operating sort of on the fly,” Mitchell said. “Ordinarily for health reasons or because the president or the board realized it wasn’t a good fit — there’s usually some reason given. If in fact it was a closed discussion, then that is unusual enough to take note of it.”
Mitchell said colleges and universities also regularly prefer outgoing presidents remain in office after the departure is announced for six months to a year in order to smooth a transition for the incoming president.
“They want an orderly transition,” Mitchell said. “It’s less likely for presidents who had only been there for a year, and more likely for presidents who had been there longer.”
The average tenure of a president has also changed as the years have gone on — Mitchell said the average used to be seven years and it’s now under five years.
“Presidents are not retaining their positions or staying in them for nearly as long as they were even in the period after the Great Recession,” Mitchell said. “The fact that it’s dropped to under five years is something to watch.”
Each of the outgoing presidents from last week’s departures had served less than five years at their respective institutions. As interim presidents prepare to take office and fill the leadership voids left by these departures, Mitchell said the lack of information could sow concerns among faculty.
“In this case, the board is presumably making the decision not to retain the president, and that will send shivers through the administration unless your administration was in favor of the move,” Mitchell said. “If in fact faculty are not taking a strong position, the only thing that does is create two issues: uncertainty, and skepticism about the actions of the board.”