At the end of his four year ride, it is sometimes hard to remember that Mitchell Reiss was a college president rather than a management consultant on assignment to Washington College in Chestertown.
It wasn’t that Mitchell Reiss didn’t act like a college president. He cheered lacrosse teams and opened up edgy contemporary art exhibitions at the Kohl. He helped move kids into their dorms, drank beers with alumni, and donned, without hesitation, the school’s slightly flamboyant presidential academic wardrobe.
Perhaps the most notable college-presidency thing he did was to insist on singing Washington College’s horrific alma mater at academic events and demanded it be played on the college phone system when callers were placed on hold. It is not clear if this was a lame effort to recreate a sense of pride at WC, or some kind of terror tactic learned while working with the I.R.A. in Northern Ireland during his time with the Bush Administration.
But only history can judge how well Reiss succeeded with his primary goal—to change the culture of Washington College.
With a mandate from the College’s Visitors and Governors, it was clear that the Reiss years were to be ones of cultural change. While this objective was a reasonable one, tied to the increasingly competitive business nature of higher education in the 21st century, the means to the end can make the difference between a college president and a management consultant.
Perhaps the most famous example of the latter was the short-term career of Timothy Light, a former president of Middlebury College in Vermont. Only a month after taking office, Light started his cultural purge by forcing seventeen administrators from their offices— in full view of their shocked colleagues—into awaiting school buses to be taken to the local gym for termination processing. While partners at McKinsey and Company might have been impressed by the new CEOs bold tenacity, Middlebury’s board of directors were not, and Light was fired himself within a year.
The counterpoint of the Light example is Washington College’s own John Toll, who, like many of the most successful university and college presidents of an older era, painstakingly plotted over a decade to work with staff and faculty for administrative and academic reforms and higher standards for scholarship. Some would argue that those cultural changes took too long, while others would suggest they didn’t accomplish what needed to be done to prepare WC for the future.
The Reiss response to the challenge seemed to favor the shock and awe model. Over the course of his four years at Washington College, Reiss retired, reorganized, or forced resignations from almost every member of the College’s senior management team, including the chief academic officer, chief financial officer, chief development officer, chief enrollment officer, chief technology officer, as well as the student affairs and communications directors.
As shocking as that might be, this tactic has become the norm as colleges start to mimic the for-profit sector. Faced with daunting demands for revenue from student enrollment and fundraising to pay for fancy physical plant improvements, scholarships, and high administrative salaries, the instinctive desire to get “new blood” is a common one.
But the consequences of those decisions are keenly felt. There has been community pain, premature career terminations, personal financial loss, and the creation of a certain toxicity that comes to all institutions where anyone and everyone feels they will be the next head to roll.
Those negative impacts are, in most cases, well anticipated by the change agent. Stakeholders like board members, faculty, donors, students and surviving administrators accept this collateral damage in the belief that a more secure, sustainable future for Washington College will arrive if a president can have his/her own people.
The difference in the Reiss example was his remarkable decision to immediately depart after just building his new management team. It seems that the act of cleaning the deck itself was sufficient enough to suggest that his mission was accomplished, rather than the more traditional benchmarks like a successful fundraising campaign or a higher ranking in US News and World Report’s annual survey.
Apparently this new standard was perfectly acceptable to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation board of directors, who have hired Dr. Reiss as the foundation’s new CEO. But for many in the greater Chestertown community, there remains a moral question of when should a leader leave? Or, more specifically, for Washington College, “what would George Washington have done?”
The answer to all of this is not known, but there is a real takeaway for many colleges and universities. And that is that the days of legacy leadership may be coming to an end. The expectation that an individual can and will be “devoted” to any institution for a certain percentage of their professional life is becoming an increasingly unrealistic one.
This is partly due to an ever increasing seduction of over the top salaries, but in the end, it suggests a end of a time where the primary calling for a special breed of educators was to leave an indelible stamp on the school they felt honored to lead.
There is a real sadness if this is the new reality. The days of Washington College having those long-term visionaries like John Toll, or Douglass Cater, Dan Gibson, or Gilbert Mead, willing to devote the balance of their working life to serve this special school may indeed be over. And without them, the College could just become another revenue center. With bad theme music.