The Power of a Lame Duck College President


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From a political perspective, a lame duck is an elected official who is approaching the end of her or his tenure because they lost an election, decided to retire, or have reached their term limits.

Many posit that a lame duck suffers from a loss of power as she (or he) gets closer to the end of their time in office, and there is certainly evidence that this may well be the case.

Which college presidents are uniquely positioned to advance their institutions?

However, while a loss of power might occur for elected officials, it is decidedly less true for college presidents who have announced their retirement.

In fact, it is during the time between the announcement of their retirement and their actual leaving that a college president is often uniquely positioned to advance the institution and help assure the success of the new president.

Let me explain.

Many college and university presidents worry a great deal about the political fallout of decisions that should be made. As a result, they often delay tough decisions.

Perhaps they want more data, feel compelled to find consensus, or simply believe they need more time. Or, as the time of their departure looms, they run out of gas or become overly concerned with their legacy or how they will be remembered.

Regardless of the reason for the delay, the number of tough decisions tends to accrue, and when these presidents leave, these decisions likely get passed on to the new leader because the retiring president, either intentionally or unintentionally, has simply kicked the can down the road.

By definition, tough decisions are almost always painful decisions. Depending on the institution and its context, these decisions may involve reorganization, budget cuts, dismissals of key administrators, staff and faculty cuts, and eliminating academic programs.

Not only are such decisions painful, but they are political and likely toxic.

Making the case for the lame duck college president

So here’s the question: Who is better suited to make these tough decisions? The outgoing president or the new president?

Let me make case for the lame duck—the president who has announced his or her retirement.

The lame duck president is uniquely qualified to make those tough decisions because they are relatively immune from political fallout, have deep institutional and category knowledge, and likely have a strong relationship with the board.

The incoming president, on the other hand, simply does not have the political capital or perspective to make the tough decisions. This is especially true if the new president is also a first-time president.

Furthermore, the new president is often a relative unknown and has not had the opportunity to build the valuable relationships they will need to successfully lead.

A retiring president can weather the maelstrom

In fact, it is highly likely that these kinds of tough decisions are not survivable for the new president and will either derail or significantly impede his or her presidency.

The retiring president can more easily weather the maelstrom. In doing so, this would recast the new president as a healer and bridge-builder, a much stronger position upon which to lead.

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