III. Building Blocks and Positioning

Stepping Away – The Things They Never Told You

Dr. Harris Pastides

As campus and system president of a large research university, I faced the unexpected challenges and pleasures of retiring twice, the second time after being called back to serve in an interim capacity for one year. A university leader’s decision to step away is usually met with many concerns that are difficult to share with persons outside of family and a very close circle of friends. For example, is it time? How much notice should I give? What will my emeritus status be like, and how should I negotiate that? Should I remain immersed in university life or, generally, keep away? Will I be happy or regret the decision?

Ultimately, university presidents are not provided with enough support to make these decisions and to understand life beyond the presidency. Boards prefer to sail along and not confront succession issues as carefully or thoughtfully as other types of organizations, especially those in the private sector.

Beyond the typical issues in succession planning, the formal relationship between the departing and incoming leader should be considered. Often, this is left to the professionalism of the two individuals, but there are many instances in which the institution could be better served by being more intentional, and more clear, about expectations and potential boundaries.

Separating from an institution where a campus leader has served for many years is complicated for all involved but does not have to be awkward or painful. Thoughtful planning by the individual and the institution, the possibility of using outside mentors, and open communication are keys to a successful transition.

In much of the world, university presidents and, for that matter, professors face a mandatory retirement age; most of these higher education professionals, of course, work in the public sector. France is currently locked in a national debate about deferring retirement benefits of public employees to sixty-four from sixty-two. Oxford University has been tagged as “ageist” for setting a retirement age at all, with the new policy being sixty-eight. China’s mandatory retirement age is even younger, at sixty. One can take issue with where a mandatory retirement age is set, especially given the immense talent residing in the academy among persons well above these ages, but it certainly removes one of the deep sources of personal agony for maturing university presidents, deciding when to pass the professional baton.

It’s likely that I was invited to author this essay because I have twice as much experience in one aspect of the process than most other university presidents; I retired twice as president of the University of South Carolina. In the summer of 2019, I departed the presidency based on what I thought had been a reasonably well-considered decision. My spouse and I were beginning to feel the wear and tear of the day to night schedule, including hosting nearly two hundred events annually at the President’s House, most of them in the evening. The nature of our work was taxing, but, frankly, it was the schedule that we viewed as most burdensome. There was very little time built into our schedule for “recovery.” Even Sundays were regularly taken up with university obligations. We had missed more family birthdays and had declined more wedding invitations from dear friends whose children were being married than we could remember. We also shared the concern that if we couldn’t keep up with the schedule we had managed for ten years, if we effectively “slowed down,” would our community view us as less effective in our roles? Lest this seem like an unhappy or, worse, an ungrateful attitude, let me dispel that. We felt both happy and lucky to be in our shoes and would never trade another career opportunity for the ones we had.

Being an epidemiologist, however, one other factor weighed on me. My parents had both passed away in their late seventies and although we all expect to outlive our parents, the actuarial tables coupled with my genetic profile were like a dashboard that reminded me that if I hoped for a decade of healthy retirement, I had better get started in my mid-sixties. Our chosen retirement date would have me at sixty-five.

So we planned for two extended sabbaticals (the term being our choice, not official), to hone our interests in diverse matters and to embark on a life of productivity and travel. Personally, I also wanted to devote more time to being a more committed and available husband, father, and grandfather. Generally, we looked forward to finding a higher level of happiness. It seemed like a simple and worthy goal. More about that later.

In May 2021 I was invited back to serve as interim president, following the relatively short tenure of my successor, roughly twenty-two months since I had passed the baton. Patricia and I had very little time to make a decision and, although it would seem to have been a tortuous one, it really wasn’t that hard. Travel plans could be rescheduled, after all. In truth, Patricia, who has always lived happily “in the moment,” was enjoying her new endeavors, pursuing interests she had little time for as First Lady. She feared the disruption of the many activities and lifestyle changes we had made, but quickly saw that our university needed us and agreed to answer the call. We served the university as Interim President and First Lady for fifteen months, stepping down when our newly elected president commenced his term in the summer of 2022.

Hopefully, anyone reading this will not be called upon to return to the presidency they once had and have to retire again! I will say, however, that I was more sensitive to my second successor’s arrival than I was to the first. Of course, I had more time to prepare handing over the mantle/reins of leadership but being more aware of the pitfalls, I spent more time with the executive leadership team in helping them to be best prepared for the transition period. In particular, I worked with my chief of staff to be well prepared for meetings that would be especially important, events early in the year not to be missed, and a variety of other “green, yellow, and red lights.” I hope these were all helpful to the early days of the next presidency, and, at worst, I don’t think they hurt at all. Additionally, I had more time to work with my second successor during a more lengthy transition period.

In this essay, I review aspects of the planning process for stepping away, including the many complex personal factors tied to making that important decision, and offer some advice about strategies and communication that can serve both outgoing and incoming presidents, and the university, favorably.

Determining When to Depart

I think it’s fair to say that most university presidents love their jobs. That’s a fairly simplistic assessment but, when all is taken into account, there are few of us who would have traded the impact of serving young people, scholars, alumni, and the broader community for most any other job. This is not to ignore the many challenges, headaches, heartache, long days and long nights, and, of course, the politics of the job. So it makes sense that determining when to step away would require a level of complex decision-making. How does one decide to step away from a career they love most dearly?

Two particular complexities are worth noting. The first is external. Many professionals, including public and private chief executives in the United States, are delaying their retirement in far greater number than before. For decades, financial security was usually the main determining factor for one’s retirement age, but more recently this is not reported as the main factor. Retirement ages are slipping forward in all professional walks of life, driven by social and cultural considerations, as well as financial reasons. Another factor is that the steps involved in planning for this major life change are given scant support by most organizations, including universities.

University presidents usually find it hard to imagine themselves even partially idle. The factors influencing a decision to delay retirement include wanting to complete projects or initiatives that have been started, being in the middle of a fundraising campaign, pledging leadership to the universities, boards of trustees, or overseers, and a myriad of other reasons. This is why planning to make this decision should begin several years before any action is taken.

Start with Family and Friends

In the earliest stages, planning a presidential retirement should remain a confidential endeavor. Mentioning it to even one colleague inside the institution can result in a spreading belief that the president is officially in her or his final stage. A “secret” like this can often be greatly tempting to share, despite promises made. Information leakage is not a healthy leadership dynamic and will usually be counterproductive to keeping the leadership team fresh and fully committed to the current strategic plan.

However, one absolutely needs trusted people with whom to speak openly about their considerations and desires. “Walks in the woods” are most desirable when they are candid, and they are particularly valuable if a sitting president can do this with a friend or colleague who has already been through the process, whether or not they are in higher education. I think it’s always best to have a rolling three-year plan, and, at some point, the plan should include two pre-retirement years and the year in which the disclosure and announcement is to be made. Sometimes the decision is precipitated or advanced because of situational factors related to the job itself, especially relations with the board of trustees. This presents a different dynamic in which passing the baton is thrust on the incumbent either directly or more subtly. This essay is not highly applicable to those situations. But in most instances, the decision must start with a personal planning process that involves many considerations that are external to the university itself. Considerations could include financial aspects of retirement, long-standing desires to travel, interest in serving on not-for-profit or for-profit boards, accepting consulting or advisory roles that frequently come the way of a president who is recently retired and, of course, one’s health status, as well as that of a spouse, partner, or other family member.

It’s Lonely at the Top

It’s often said that it’s lonely at the top, and there are few times when this is more true than when contemplating stepping away from the university presidency. As stated earlier, it’s usually not possible to guarantee the confidentiality of conversations with colleagues inside the university, no matter how trusted the individual with whom the president might be discussing the decision. Attempting to speak discreetly with a board member, say the board chair, can be an even riskier proposition. Board members may well feel it to be their responsibility to share what they know about your plans with other members of the board, believing that this would be in the institution’s interest.

In my case, conversations about stepping away were kept between myself and my spouse and, on relatively rare occasions, like holidays or birthdays, shared with children and other family members but not usually with much specificity or detail. We decided to build our retirement home on the South Carolina coast and to oversee the construction (and pay down the mortgage) in our final years in the presidency. The home would be an occasional weekend place until we were fully ready. Once done, however, the home became a beautiful yet painful reminder about how marvelous it would be to have our own place, a place to escape to especially when our other home is in the heart of the campus. Locking our new house up on a rare Sunday afternoon before making the trek back to campus became increasingly frustrating and started to influence our decision. With each passing visit to our future home the decision became firmer and at some moment felt, more clearly, like the right thing to do.

One complicating factor was that I was in a contractual period of retention with my board, and I now wanted to accelerate the endpoint of my contract. This was viewed with some confusion as I had been a full party to the earlier negotiations that resulted in a date certain for my departure that was still several more years away. Ultimately, I spoke with my board leaders roughly nine months before my intended departure date. I thought that this was the appropriate length of time for searching and identifying my successor and creating an orderly transition for our many constituencies. I was advised to inform my trustees only one day before making my public announcement during a state of the university address. I planned to notify my executive leadership team, and several other very close colleagues and state political leaders on the morning of the public address.

Fortunately, the news held until the following day and the announcement was met with the expected amount of surprise, concern, or glee, as one might imagine. For my wife and I, that day was very emotional . . . and I wasn’t expecting that.

In the days that followed, things seemed to progress normally, at least at the surface. Being a lame duck is not something that any executive, including a college president, looks forward to or even thinks could ever happen to them; but it can. Lieutenants and other staff members might begin responding differently to directives, deadlines, and so on, not because of any insubordination, but because they might wonder whether the implementation of new concepts or strategies will survive the departure of the current president. This would be a normal concern of leadership teams in most organizations, and special effort needs to be made to continue with the execution of strategic plans and initiatives in order to not further interrupt the expected impact from a presidential transition.

In hindsight, I don’t feel that I had the kind or level of support that would have fostered a more careful and judicious decision-making strategy relative to passing the baton. After announcing their intention to depart, a president might enlist the help of their chief of staff or chief operating officer to help acknowledge that the transition will be difficult at times. A more open awareness and conversation about what’s to come between the announcement and the departure might be helpful to all involved.

The role of feelings and emotions, including occasional fatigue and a growing sense of “resentment” over missing personal and family gatherings and other important traditions, tends to grow with time and can even grow to be outsized. Once I made it clear that my intention was to pass the baton and was talking to some trustees about my reasoning, including wanting more time for family, travel, and so on, they said, “Why didn’t you say so? We could have arranged for a couple of mini sabbaticals or for time away.” That hadn’t occurred to me and made me feel like that conversation could have been a two-way street. . . . Started by me, or by them, after over a decade of successful leadership.

The topic of succession planning did come up from time to time, but always in executive session and not with me present in the room or participating in the dialogue. The way that succession planning happens in public and private universities is enough to fill another essay but, suffice it to say, it does not happen with as much intentionality and careful planning as it does in the private sector. Open record laws and the requirement for public meetings account for some of the basis, but, generally, there is no methodical commitment to succession planning anywhere in the academic enterprise.

Buyer’s Remorse?

It’s also wise to expect that the president and partner, when there is one, will experience fluctuating emotions, including occasional sadness and even remorse. I found these moments during my last year to generally surround events on the academic calendar that you realize, and others publicly point out to you, are “your last one ever,” whether that is a reception for incoming students, an advisory council meeting, or a football game. What had been anticipated as a celebration at these events can be tainted with a darker mood, given the knowledge that you will not be presiding at these ever again, regardless of the celebratory trappings present. I think it’s hard to prevent these feelings, especially if you were particularly content and happy in the presidency. I can’t say that this analogy would work for anyone else, but I liken it, at least a little bit, to walking my children down the wedding aisle. Obviously, it is a very happy event but it is colored by the knowledge that things will never be exactly the same again.

After the announcement, the decision is final, and there can be no going back. The institution is poised to move on, and so must you. I wouldn’t characterize my own feelings during the nine-month period between the announcement and my departure as remorse or regret. I knew what I wanted to do, and nobody twisted my arm. However, it was simply not possible to completely grasp the roller coaster of feelings as the farewell parties and other activities related to my impending future arrived.

What is it Like on the Day After?

A wonderful book by Jack Kornfield called After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, implies that life is full of ups and downs, and, in his examples, many occur in close proximity. So it is with passing the baton. There were so many parties, celebrations, dinners, and tributes that came our way during our last nine months in office. Patricia and I remain incredibly grateful and humbled by all of the attention and affection received. We even had a larger than life portrait painted which now hangs in a magnificent 60,000-square-foot alumni center that bears our name. The announcement of the Pastides Alumni Center was made at our very last graduation dinner, and it took us both by great surprise and joy. Nevertheless, one cannot be fully prepared for that first Monday morning, following the last day in the president’s office.

There are plenty of expectations relative to remaining busy, serving on a board or two, writing a book offering reflections or advice, and, of course, all the stereotypic comments about fishing, photography, and travel. None of it is an apt prediction of how you will feel in the weeks and months ahead. For one thing, often the baton is passed when you are at the top of your game. Through your amassed experience and the bumps and bruises of lessons learned, you are probably at your best with respect to navigating the challenges of the university just as you decide to step away. The only way to deal with that is to seek one or more opportunities that will keep you sharp and influential.

I don’t recommend engagement on too many committees, boards, or community or civic engagements. I think it’s much better to keep or develop one or two leadership roles, if you can. For example, I think it is more rewarding to serve as the chair of a committee or board than it is to serve on three committees. The fact that an institution depends on your judgment and engagement can be of great satisfaction to your life post-retirement. I even developed a closer respect and affinity to some organizations that, before retirement, felt more like an obligation.

Also, it’s worth considering writing one’s memoirs, even if they are not meant to be published or read widely. The recollections and reflections can serve as a valuable, if sentimental, self-recognition about the remarkable professional journey that led to the presidency and recently has led to passing the baton. I keep a room in our new house full of memorabilia from the presidency, and this room is also my office. My wife, who seriously dislikes clutter, claims it all belongs in the university museum, but I think I’ll know when the time is right for the pictures, footballs, awards, photos, and plaques to leave the shelves and go into boxes. That hasn’t happened yet.

Of course, many former presidents go on to work in related fields of higher education, namely, in search firms or in consulting, usually related to strategic planning or university governance. Each of these can be a very worthwhile activity, but again I would stress the nature of the involvement rather than the number of engagements. The ultimate gratification in one’s work comes from knowing that your efforts and advice have been of lasting value to an institution.

Engaging with the New President

It’s critically important to the welfare of a university that all constituents are made aware that the new president is in charge and that the former president has gone away. I think this is important reason why, as part of the United States’ presidential inauguration, the former president and family are seen being driven away from the Capitol before the festivities are concluded. People need to know that there is only one president in charge.

Of course, it’s quite possible that after passing the baton, a university president returns to teaching, writing, and other academic endeavors that require them to be on campus. The further away from the central administration building that these activities take place, the better. It’s wise to participate in university activities that will not appear to infringe on the primacy of the current president, especially large athletic, alumni, and community gatherings when it’s indeed possible and predictable that most present would know the former president and not yet the current president. I was honored to be offered by the board, the title of distinguished president emeritus, but I also understood that for all the title’s loftiness, President Emeritus is not the second most important person at the university! My responsibilities are, and should be, limited to those that the board or the president would find valuable and almost always are conducted behind the scenes. Some of these realities will vary by the nature of the institution, of course. In my case, I particularly value serving as an informal mentor to junior faculty. I’m able to provide some guidance and encouragement relative to navigating the tenure process, managing the balance between scholarship and teaching, and even some insight on work/life balance.

I’ve had the opportunity to experience relationships with two successors, one following my original retirement, and one following the year when I returned to the university to serve as interim president. In the first case, my successor was someone known to me through national committee work, but not intimately. In the second, my successor was a friend and colleague, someone I’ve known for twenty years, and an individual who served as my provost for five years.

The challenges presented by both scenarios are unique, and both deserve attention. In the first instance, there was no shared history. Activities that will lead to developing trust and diminish the opportunity for competitiveness should be planned and should be important to the board of trustees as well as to the former and current president. Generally, they should be one-on-one encounters with confidentiality as a core requirement. It’s important when passing the baton to not appear to be still engaged in decision-making of any kind. Of course, it’s entirely appropriate to seek and offer advice, but this should always be done privately and generally not very often.

In 2008 when I was elected president, I succeeded one of my dear friends and mentors, Andrew Sorensen. Andrew had been dean of the School of Public Health when I was a young, pre-tenured professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He contributed to my development in myriad ways and we stayed in close touch as he moved to increasingly senior positions at Johns Hopkins University, the University of Florida, and the University of Alabama. I nominated him for the presidency of the University of South Carolina, and I was thrilled when he was appointed. I was then the dean of the School of Public Health, and later he appointed me as vice president of research and health sciences.

Still, even with all this closeness, respect, and shared history, I remember how it felt after he retired when he occasionally would offer me advice. It always came from the place that was meant to be positive for me and to advance my success, and the university’s success. Occasionally, however, I might have preferred to have been left to my own assessment of a situation and ultimately my own decision-making. Hopefully, this experience helped me prepare to be a better former president now that I have that responsibility.

Final Thoughts

One thing that could skew nearly everything said in this essay is the relationship between the president and her or his constituents, especially the board of trustees. My own retirement experiences were “voluntarily” conceived and planned. Were there any kind of duress or serious conflict involved in my final years, my sentiments and advice would certainly be far different.

I’m not equipped to offer advice on how to handle such a departure/resignation made under duress, I would surmise that the negotiated terms, including those that are financial, would go a long way in buffering the potential frustration, dismay, or anger. Beyond that, it’s obvious that the support of professional colleagues, friends, and family would be critical to navigating such a transition period.

Finally, the changing nature of higher education in the United States is palpable. Its value to our nation’s economic and civic well-being is being questioned more vigorously and from more quarters than ever before. In one sense this is an opportunity to sharpen our mission, stay true to our core values, and also, where we can, rethink some of the things we have come to take for granted over the decades in which we thrived.

On top of that, the challenges of operating a sprawling organization on a day-to-day basis with all the imperatives of diverse constituencies will render the American university presidency increasingly complex. Tenures are likely to continue to diminish and then plateau at some lower number of years than they are, even today.

Sometimes it seems unseemly to be contemplating passing the baton “early” in a president’s term of office, but the best institutions are constantly planning for succession even if the chief executive’s departure is not expected near term. And it’s never too early to embark on introspection, the conversation with one’s self, about how they actually feel about their job and their longer-term future. Having a trusted person to engage with is also very healthy. It’s never really too early to begin that contemplation . . . maybe even right after accepting the baton from the person ahead of you.

Because this chapter covered presidential transition, I haven’t mentioned the fine mentorship and advice I received from John Palms, the 26th president of the University of South Carolina, who served the term prior to my predecessor. Needless to say, there is always a special relationship between those who presided at the same institution, no matter where they may go and no matter the time passed. That is a role that John Palms played exceedingly well and a role which I hope to be able to play sometime in the distant future.


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Stepping Away – The Things They Never Told You Copyright © 2024 by Dr. Harris Pastides is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.