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The Trauma of Executive Termination — Part 2: College and University Presidents

In order to properly serve their clients, executive employment attorneys must understand the emotional power of being terminated from a top executive position. In the preceding post, I termed that experience not just unpleasant or disturbing, but actually traumatic, provoking the same kind of primal “fight or flight” reaction which we associate with the most basic human instincts.

The reason for dwelling on the emotional ramifications of the termination experience is to understand why executives and their attorneys need to put a responsive protocol in place so that the feeling part of the experience does not overwhelm the rational judgment and analytic ability of an executive at a time when that executive (hopefully under the guidance of his or her attorney) needs to make a number of important decisions. Indeed, our job as executive compensation attorneys is to walk any client who has been terminated through the steps of that protocol.

Before discussing these practical steps (or at least the most important of them), it is worth a digression to consider the effects of termination on a particular group of executives whom we have been regularly privileged to represent: college and university presidents. These remarks are also applicable to the leaders of other non-profit institutions, ranging from charitable foundations to arts organizations such as theatres and museums.

The head of a for-profit company may be, and many are, committed to objectives other than money — for example, being a good employer and a responsible corporate citizen — but their primary focus is delivering an appropriate economic return to their owners and stakeholders. By contrast, although college and university presidents have to spend a meaningful amount of time on economic issues such as finances, budgets and fundraising, these activities are seen as the necessary foundation for a larger goal which is not purely economic, such as enhancing society by delivering a quality education to a group of worthy and diverse learners.

In our experience, college and university presidents (as well as provosts and deans who are aspiring presidents) are uncommonly devoted to the stated mission of their institutions. This often means not just being aligned with that mission as a matter of ideology, but also developing a profound psychological identification with the institution on the part of the president or other senior executive.

College and university presidents “live” the mission of the institution virtually around the clock, and our experience as legal counselors to many of these distinguished academic leaders is that they allow themselves little, if any, “down time” in pursuit of that mission. Few, if any of them, take even a fraction of the substantial vacation allotment which we regularly obtain in their presidential contracts (in a recent lawyer-to-lawyer conversation with the general counsel of a top liberal arts college, this general counsel expressed his personal concern over the health of the president who had, to his precise knowledge, taken less than two days off during the entire 15 months of the COVID pandemic).

Given this level of commitment to the college or university which is the president’s employer, it should not be difficult to understand that being terminated (or, to put it bluntly, being fired) from that leadership position is a disorienting psychological blow, one which may be even more traumatic than being fired as CEO of a for-profit enterprise.

In the business world, executives are more conditioned to expect that their corporate employers, for a variety of reasons, may at some time dispense with their services, no matter the historic value of those services.

By contrast, it is easier in the non-profit world for an executive to come to believe that his or her sacrifices in the fight for education, justice, health and societal improvement or art will be met by a different kind of loyalty on the part of their employers; this is why college and university presidents are quite often “blindsided” when they are terminated, even when it is explained that the change in leadership was not prompted by any inadequate performance or lack of success, but merely by the whim of a Board of Trustees who themselves are not monetarily compensated. To be fired by a college or university for which the president has spent years of weekends traveling to alumni fundraisers is, accordingly, an experience filled with pain, shock and surprise, and requires special handling from even highly experienced executive employment lawyers.

This, as we will discuss in the next post devoted to this topic, is all the more reason for the imposition of a termination protocol for the president, to be carried out under the guidance of his or her attorney.

About the Author

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George Birnbaum

Since 1980, sophisticated business people have relied on George to apply the meticulous preparation, attention to detail, and devotion to his clients he learned from fabled trial lawyer Louis Nizer. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, George has over 35 years of distinguished deal-making, litigation, mediation and arbitration experience which he has used to negotiate high-stakes agreements for senior executives and select business clients throughout the United States.