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  • Writer's picturePatricia Salkin

Lawyer Presidencies Derailed – Poor Judgement, Ethical Lapses, and Football

In his book, Presidencies Derailed: Why University Leaders Fail and How to Prevent It, two-time lawyer president Stephen Joel Trachtenberg (along with Gerald B. Kauvar and E. Grady Bogue), discusses why first-term presidencies have failed and what can be learned from these experiences. The book points out that between 2009 and 2010, fifty presidents of higher education institutions either resigned, retired prematurely, or were fired. While there are many reasons for unsuccessful tenures including but not limited to controversial search and appointment processes (often related to political appointments that still occur with some level of frequency in this decade), poor decisions on the part of the presidents (e.g., ethical and judgmental lapses) subpar interpersonal skills, lack of professionalism, and difficulty in acclimating to the culture of the campus, the presidents whose terms are cut short includes non-lawyers and lawyers alike.

Trachtenberg’s book identifies and examines the following six derailment themes: ethical lapses, poor interpersonal skills, inability to lead key constituencies, difficulty adapting, failure to meet business objectives, and board shortcomings. Chapter six recounts the personal experiences of two people whose presidencies were derailed, and one of them is lawyer Michael Garrison, who served as President of West Virginia University for one year from 2007-2008. Like many other lawyer presidents, Garrison had significant government experience having served as chief of staff to Governor Bob Wise and as a cabinet secretary in the W. Va. Department of Tax and Revenue. At the time he was recruited for the presidency, he was serving as chair of the W. VA. Higher Education Policy Commission. By self- admission, he was a non-traditional candidate who had no experience working in higher education, yet the Board of Governors voted 15-1 to appoint him to the presidency. While he experienced many successes in the early days of his presidency, despite reservation expressed by faculty and students about his lack of higher education experience, two crises cut short his tenure: a legal battle with the football coach and a controversy surrounding the awarding of a degree to the Governor’s daughter where the program suffered from lack of paperwork to provide meaningful evidence as to whether or not the degree was earned. As Garrison explains his version of the events in the book, he did what he believed was legally accurate to protect the University, yet in the end he had a faculty vote of no confidence and he felt that the Board was no longer publicly supportive of his leadership so he decided to step-down.

In the last year, a number of lawyer campus presidents have ended their terms early. For example, in June 2002, Colorado State University president Joyce McConnell and the Board decided to part ways before her contract term ended. There were several high-profile incidents during her tenure where her judgment was called into question. For example, like Michael Garrison, she made a controversial decision over football, “when she put a temporary stop to the football program over reports of racial insensitivity and a scandal over coaches encouraging players not to report COVID symptoms.” She then fired the head football coach after a dismal two-season 4-12 record.

Lawyer Luis Sanchez, President of Oxnard College (and former president of Moorpark College), announced his early retirement in October, effective in January 2023 amid an investigation involving two complaints – one of “unlawful but not criminal ‘harassment, including on the basis of sex and gender’ and one complaint of ‘misconduct pertaining to the Oxnard College Foundation.’” He had been put on leave pending the investigation. President Sanchez’s dispute with the College Foundation centered upon policies that prevented the primarily Hispanic serving institution from providing scholarship funds to needy students.

Leadership requires good judgment, a high ethical compass, a consultive style, and a sense of campus culture to help guide difficult decision making. In some cases, presidents may be derailed because they made appropriate decisions and took appropriate actions but either the governing board or other campus leadership disagreed or swayed public perception. In other cases, lapses in judgment can simply be unforgiving given the highly public and visible nature of the campus presidency.

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