Feb 19, 2022 - Politics & Policy

College presidents head for the exits

Students, faculty and others walk down a campus path amidst a mostly empty University of California-Irvine campus Friday, Jan. 7, 2022

Students walk down a campus path at University of California-Irvine campus Jan. 7, 2022. Photo: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

A growing number of college presidents are leaving their jobs after two grueling years trying to navigate their schools through the pandemic.

Why it matters: COVID has taken a major toll on education at all levels — from widespread burnout among K-12 teachers to significant turnover in higher education.

Driving the news: More than a dozen college presidents have announced their resignation since 2020.

  • There's no official historical data tracking college presidents' retirements.
  • But Roderick McDavis, who was the first Black president of Ohio University and is now a managing principal at AGB Search, a higher education leadership search firm, told Axios he's seeing a "little bit more activity" in the number of colleges beginning the search for a new president.

"If people had planned to spend one or two more years, because of what occurred last year and this year with literally being on the clock 24/7, I think that moved the retirement time up for some presidents," McDavis said.

  • McDavis pointed to the transition to remote learning and low enrollment as some of the factors contributing to additional stress on college presidents. "It's a domino effect," he said.

Some university leaders also might have planned to announce their retirement in 2020, but then waited once the pandemic hit.

  • "For some presidents, it was sort of, 'Hey, I want to see my institution through the crisis.' Many of them did, but then this year, we're seeing many of those presidents step down," McDavis said, adding that others are stepping down because "they're not sure what the future might hold."

Details: Biddy Martin, who has served as the president of Amherst College since 2011, announced in September that she will retire this summer.

  • MIT president L. Rafael Reif earlier this month announced his retirement at the end of the year.
  • Northwestern's president Morton Schapiro announced last year that his presidential tenure would end in 2022.
  • Freeman Hrabowski, who's served as the president of University of Maryland, Baltimore County for three decades, will step down at the end of the academic year.
  • And Rev. Joseph M. McShane, who is the president of Fordham University, will retire in June.

What's next: "As these new leaders begin to take over for those that are leaving, it's going to take them a year or two to get the institution back to where it was before the pandemic," McDavis said.

  • "Two years of a pandemic, really might turn into three or four years of instability for the institution."

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