Skip to main content
How to Think Differently

Demanding Times for System Heads

April 21, 2021

In the News

The Chronicle of Higher Education article, Demanding Times for System Heads, by Lee Gardner, featured commentary from Isaacson, Miller Founder and Chair of the Board, John Isaacson on the challenging nature of the current landscape for public university system heads. Find excerpts from the article below.


If there’s a new “hot seat” in higher-education administration, it might burn hottest at the top. The job of public-college system head has seen a string of abrupt departures, board battles, and contentious searches.

The nation’s growing political polarization has fueled much of the current upset in system governance, says Jill Derby, a senior consultant with the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. Derby was chair of the board of the Nevada system back in the ‘90s and ‘00s and says she often didn’t know her fellow regents’ political affiliation. Now, she says, partisanship “is very much in the mix of boards.” Such dynamics can be particularly acute in states with one-party control of the governorship and legislature, according to a Chronicle analysis.

But long-running changes in what’s expected of the job have made it tougher, too. System presidents and chancellors now serve in a role that has evolved from an advocate and caretaker to a chief innovation officer from whom results are demanded. They steer collections of increasingly complex institutions through some of the most tumultuous times higher education has ever seen. And they do all this during the most politically fraught period the country has experienced in half a century.

After all, sociopolitical turmoil ensnaring a university’s top leader is nothing new, says John M. Isaacson, founder and chair of Isaacson, Miller, an executive-search company. Red scares swept campuses after World War I and during the McCarthy era, testing the resolve of system leaders. Clark Kerr, the architect of the vaunted California Master Plan for Higher Education, upon which many public-college systems are based, was fired as head of the University of California system in 1967 by a Board of Regents aligned with then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, who disapproved of the free-speech movement at the system’s Berkeley campus. Politics make these “demanding times for system heads,” Isaacson says. “But it’s in the nature of the role and not historically anomalous.”

What makes a good system leader? The skill set is similar to that of the leader of a large university, says Isaacson, of Isaacson, Miller. A university president has to run a sprawling and varied enterprise. She or he may have been before the legislature several times and struck numerous partnerships with local business and industry. She or he has juggled the concerns of a wide spectrum of stakeholders, often regarding contentious social issues.

To read the full article click here.

An illustration of a person looking ahead to a challenge.