Nationally, university presidents’ terms are shorter than in years past

Dan Haugen

With no administration, no vice president and just one secretary, Cyrus Northrop led the University as president for 27 years, from 1884 to 1911.

But times have changed, and the University might never see another president stay as long as Northrop did.

The role of university president has become increasingly complex and stressful. Combine that with a greater post-World War II demand for strong administrative skills, and experts say the result is a job market in which Mark Yudof’s five-year term is pretty much on par for a university president.

“The jobs have really changed,” Yudof said Wednesday on Minnesota Public Radio’s “Midday” program. “It’s not just having a game plan, reading it over the loudspeaker system and expecting everyone to salute and raise the flag and go on their way. It’s been much more politicized over the last 30 to 40 years. It’s also become more of a 24/7 type of job.”

Because it’s a more challenging position, University historian Ann Pflaum said it’s understandable that there is greater turnover now.

“People are needing change more often,” Pflaum said. “The old pattern of a single institution for a person’s whole life is just not common anymore.”

Pflaum said terms for university presidents are getting shorter all over the country.

Besides the increase in job responsibilities, there’s also more demand from other organizations looking to hire someone with a university president’s skills. The number of large, national organizations and foundations has increased dramatically since World War II, Pflaum said, and these groups are frequently seeking to hire the same type of candidates who would be qualified to lead universities.

Advances in transportation technology have also been a factor by increasing a president’s exposure to the world and vice versa, Pflaum said. The automobile didn’t become popular until after Northrop’s presidency. Now, Yudof can fly between Minnesota and Texas in a matter of hours.

Only four of the University’s 13 previous presidents served shorter terms than Yudof. Kenneth Keller resigned amid criticism in 1988 after three years in office. Walter Coffey served four years as an interim president during World War II, and Guy Ford retired in 1941 after three years on the job.

In the most similar departure to Yudof’s, Marion Burton was recruited away by the University of Michigan in 1920 after just three years at the University.

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