Growing up, people would often ask me if I was going to be a preacher like my dad. I adamantly said “no” every time, but I did find my own calling in higher education. The college and university presidency is a ministry.
But an itinerant one.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism said, “This preacher has one talent, that another; no one whom I ever yet knew has all the talents which are needful for beginning, continuing, and perfecting the work of grace in a whole congregation.” This idea is reflected by the late Princeton president William Bowen who wrote “There is a proper rhythm in life for both institutions and individuals, and that rhythm deserves to be respected.”
The average tenure of college presidents continues to decline, now only 6.5 years. I have been fortunate to complete two presidential tenures longer than the average; nine years at Dillard, seven and a half at Philander Smith. The research generally indicates a term of seven to ten years is optimal for a successful presidency. It represents the proper rhythm for most academic presidencies.
Watching the Olympics also reminds me that the presidency is also a relay. Some are like the swimming relays, where the new swimmer dives right in. This is what happens when there is a sudden need for a new leader. But ideally, it looks more like a track relay, where the runner with the baton runs at full speed and the next runner begins to run in the transition zone so that when the baton is passed in the zone they are both running. Only after the exchange can the previous runner slow down.
My leg at Dillard will end after ten years in May of 2022. This description is more accurate than stepping down because for the next ten months I will continue to sprint. We have a number of projects and goals left to achieve. At the same time, this gives the Board of Trustees time in the transition zone to identify, select, and onboard the 8th president of Dillard University so that they will be running when I pass the baton.
Dillard University and New Orleans have been awesome for our family, and we are thankful for the love and support. But it is time for a new challenge where my gifts and graces match the needs of an institution at this point in their history, and Dillard is ready for someone new to do likewise. And in this season of increased presidential departures, particularly due to retirements, there are a number of exciting possibilities at a diversity of institutions for which my talents may match.
This past May, when I was deciding if this was time for the handoff, I spoke with Dr. Johnetta Cole, the legendary president of Spelman College who announced her departure at the beginning of her tenth and final year. After I shared my intentions, she blessed me saying “It is good for the institution, and it is good for you too.”
It is time to respect the rhythm.