by Lisa Jasinski, Ph.D.
When a president, provost, or dean announces their intention to return to the faculty, much talk and speculation follows. Why is the person doing this? Why now? What are they going to do? Do you think there’s more to this story? How much do you think this person is getting paid?
Most colleges are not asking the right questions about senior academic leadership transitions. In my research, very few campuses are having creative and intentional conversations about how to structure these transitions to benefit both the institution and the individual.
Failing to approach these delicate negotiations as win-win opportunities magnifies the chances of a decidedly lopsided outcome. An extreme example might include a former leader receiving generous compensation packages with few (if any) teaching, research, or service obligations. Alternatively, a former leader might resume steady teaching and publishing only to feel they could be of greater use to the institution (if only they had been invited or encouraged to do so).
Aligning Individual Talents and Institutional Needs
There are many valuable contributions that academic leaders who return to the faculty are poised to make. Options include formal appointments, such as department chair, director of a center or program, accreditation report author, fundraising liaison, search committee chair, or lending specialized expertise to a technical committee (e.g., IRB, NCAA compliance). But there are many informal roles an ex-administrator might be well-suited for, such as mentor to an early-career scholar, amiable guest at a donor dinner, moderator of a one-time symposium, or advisory board member.
Timing matters. Immediately upon leaving a position, many leaders both want and need a well-deserved break from university life. A year’s sabbatical is often a sufficient chance to relax, read, and formulate future goals. An alignment conversation might be more productive after the former leader has returned to full-time work and their successor has a better lay of the land. Calendar time to confer when everyone is better equipped to make realistic offers of help and determine where help is most needed.
Healthy boundaries are the foundation of any functional relationship — and they are critical in an arrangement as complex as a former president or provost returning to the faculty. If an outgoing leader is willing and able to assist with their successor’s onboarding or other special assignments, it can be helpful to identify the parameters:
Will the outgoing leader be available for onboarding consultation? When does that time period end? Under what circumstances can an incoming leader call or text their predecessor? To what extent, if any, is the outgoing leader willing to take on special assignments or roles to support the work of the new administration? Does the outgoing leader have anything in mind?
Making Fair Compensation the Norm
If you want to be plain about it, salary is an opportunity to materially balance individual and institutional needs when it comes to salary. James Finkelstein and Judith Wilde, two leading researchers on executive compensation in higher ed, have determined that while there is no standard model for how leaders are paid upon returning to the faculty, there are some common arrangements. Some ex-leaders continue to receive all or most of their administrative pay (perhaps their salary is adjusted to reflect working a nine-month academic year). In contrast, others might receive a salary in line with a professor of comparable rank and discipline. Depending on the model, Finkelstein and Wilde have estimated that institutions may be on the hook for upwards of $5 million to keep a former president on the faculty payroll until retirement.
So-called “retreat rights” and salary terms are often negotiated when an administrator is hired or reappointed, in other words, years before returning to the faculty. As colleges and their governing boards take a more expansive view of administrator-to-faculty transitions, I urge them to approach their negotiations through a framework that compensates former leaders for the job performed. In short, pay ex-administrators comparably to their equivalent faculty peers (accounting for discipline and rank). In an era of skyrocketing tuition costs, ubiquitous reductions in force, and high-profile program cuts, ending what Finkelstein and Wilde have called the “platinum parachute” is a no-brainer.
Institutional Preferences Outweigh Individual Wants
In an ideal world, universities and their former academic leaders see eye to eye regarding whether and how an individual will support the institution upon returning to the faculty. But since we don’t live in a perfect world, it merits being explicit that when the university and the former leader have competing visions, the decision ultimately rests with the university’s current leadership.
A former leader may volunteer to play a central role in fundraising only to have that offer politely declined by the new dean. There is no expectation that a former leader be asked to take on “other duties as assigned.” That decision remains squarely in the purview of those steering the ship. Still, it behooves new leadership to provide a previous administrator with direction on channeling their time and talents. Failing to do so will almost surely result in a former leader trying to be helpful in many counterproductive ways.