But she wasn’t the first university president to abandon the position; rather, Johnson’s pending resignation follows a trend of top administrators across the country who recently have done the same. High-profile presidential departures from Harvard University, the University of Florida, Michigan State University — and half of the Big Ten — in the past year point to what one higher education expert said is an indication of several things, including the changing role of the university president.
“The president has an incredibly high pressure, high demand position,” said Everett Smith, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Cincinnati, whose research focuses on leadership at public two- and four-year colleges. “One of the concerns and challenges from the field is that you are seeing a trend where presidents are staying less.”
Johnson will resign after commencement in May, making her presidency the second-shortest in Ohio State’s history. Her Nov. 28 announcement marked the seventh Big Ten president who has left or announced they will leave the position in 2022.
The Big Ten moves together
Of the 14 universities in the Big Ten, seven have seen presidential turnover this year.
On Jan. 15, the University of Michigan Board of Regents sent a letter to President Mark Schlissel informing him the board would terminate his presidency due to evidence of an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate. He served less than six years as president, and after a yearlong leave of absence, he will resume his tenured faculty position at Michigan next fall.
“Your conduct as summarized above is particularly egregious considering your knowledge of and involvement in addressing incidents of harassment by University of Michigan personnel, and your declared commitment to work to ‘free’ the University community of sexual harassment or other improper conduct,” the board’s letter to Schlissel read.
In May, Rebecca Blank, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, left to become president of Northwestern University. After her nine-year run at Wisconsin, however, Blank never assumed the Northwestern presidency; she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer and stepped down from her incoming role in July.
After Blank’s July announcement of her withdrawal from Northwestern’s presidency, the university scrambled to find a replacement before the start of fall classes. Exactly one month later, Michael Schill was named the next president.
On May 8, Penn State University President Eric Barron formally resigned from his post. He served as president for eight years.
In June, Purdue University’s president for a decade, Mitch Daniels, announced his plans to resign at the end of 2022. The university simultaneously announced Daniels’ successor, who had already been elected by the Board of Trustees before the public was notified.
On Oct. 13, Samuel Stanley Jr., president of Michigan State University, gave his 90-day notice of resignation following months of calls from the university’s board to resign or be fired. Both the board and Stanley were implicated in complaints that Title IX reports weren’t properly certified. After just more than three years, his resignation marked the third president in four years to leave Michigan State.
Smith said the Big Ten is far from unique in its presidential turnover. He said resignations of top-level administrators across colleges and universities suggest changes in the president’s role — and those interested in it.
The role of the president
“Everyone wants to be president, but no one wants to do president,” Smith said.
Once a chiefly academic and administrative job, the role of university president has become far more akin to a politician’s or a fundraiser’s, Smith said. Part of that shift is driven by increasing competition for resources: state funding, corporate donors, and student enrollment.
Smith explained that to make up for revenue lost during the pandemic — and before that, the 2008 recession — institutions have doubled down on their philanthropic goals.
In October 2019, about a month before then-President Michael V. Drake announced he would resign, Ohio State announced a lofty fundraising campaign to raise $4.5 billion from one million donors, the largest goal in the university’s history. As of Oct. 31, Ohio State has raised more than $3.5 billion from more than 693,000 donors, according to the board finance committee’s November meeting agenda.
Other universities have launched similarly ambitious fundraising goals, like a $6 billion campaign by the University of Texas or a $5.28 billion campaign that the University of Michigan completed in February. The focus on fundraising efforts, Smith said, increasingly requires a university’s figurehead to build extensive connections, recruit donors and please stakeholders.
“Certainly they’re responsible for the students on campus, students and faculty, and other administrative leaders,” Smith said. “But there’s this whole other group of individuals who are donors and politicians and legislators, the governor, who presidents have some obligation to be responsive and attuned to.”
The changing presidential role has also changed the type of person who becomes one, Smith said, noting that fewer people from academic backgrounds — once the standard employment profile of a university president — are taking office. And as demands on presidents increase, universities have offered growing salaries and benefits to coveted candidates.
Johnson’s base salary, for example, is $900,000. She also receives $85,000 in fringe benefits and $200,000 contributed to her retirement fund each year. In August 2021, the board approved a $27,000 raise and $263,500 performance bonus for Johnson. At the time of Drake’s resignation, he earned a base salary of $891,946 — just more than the $890,000 base salary he was offered when taking the role of University of California system president.
When he assumed the Michigan State presidency in 2019, Stanley earned $720,000 annually. By 2021, Stanley’s base pay increased to $960,000. Schlissel’s base salary was $927,000 at the University of Michigan; his successor earns $975,000. And Barron, who was president of Penn State for nearly a decade, had a base pay of about $800,000 but frequently earned more than that due to bonuses — raking in nearly $1.85 million in one year. His successor earns a base salary of $950,000.
Transparency in leadership transitions
Some colleges and universities might prefer discreet presidential resignations, especially when those presidents faced scandals and upsets during their terms. In several cases, presidents resigned at the end of their contracts or pursued new opportunities. Some presidents were forced out amid complaints and investigations. For other presidents, the causes remain unclear.
A source told NBC4 that Johnson was originally set to announce her resignation following a request from the university’s board of trustees, with Johnson allegedly having a contentious relationship with several members of the board. Additional sources said Johnson is being held personally responsible for the departure of at least two high-ranking university officials.
The university and Johnson have denied such claims. Although Johnson and Ohio State have repeatedly stated it was her decision to step down, neither has detailed what led her to that decision.
Smith said there’s a “concerning” trend of secrecy and concealment surrounding presidential resignations across the country, a clear shift from what he said ought to be a university’s primary objective in handling leadership transitions: transparency.
It’s particularly important for public universities to keep the public abreast of leadership changes and circumstances, Smith said, especially when those changes can impact the university’s operations or important relationships.
Smith is careful not to speculate. But looking at other presidential transitions, he said it’s common for information and explanations to trickle out slowly as time progresses.
“If history tells us anything, accountability is important, experience is important, and over time, it’s very hard to be evasive about those two things,” Smith said.