10/25/2012 02:57 pm ET Updated Dec 25, 2012

Avoiding Institutional Amnesia

The ranks of college and university presidents have aged significantly in the past years, with the average age leaping to 60 from 52 a decade ago. As a result, we will soon see a large turnover in presidents -- and that, in turn, will mean a loss of institutional memory.

The loss of institutional memory presents a major problem to a new president. Presidents need to do whatever they can to prevent the mistakes of the past from being repeated. And the best way do so? By remembering those mistakes.

Just as college and university presidents come and go, so, too, do the staff members and trustees who may have lived through difficult times on campus. Accordingly, after the passage of a generation, perhaps even after the run of a president's predecessor (which, in almost all cases, is far less than a generation), colleges and universities seem to repeat the mistakes of the past. To avoid them, a president must make sure someone's portfolio includes responsibility for knowing the college's history, someone with the courage to speak out and the credibility to be listened to. Without that person, both the president and the institution will suffer mightily.

Boards of trustees would seem to be a natural line of defense against repeated errors. Often, they are not. Ironically (and unfortunately), boards often fail to listen to long-serving trustees.

Sometimes, older board members don't speak up; sometimes, when they do, they are thanked --and their views are shoved aside to the detriment of the institution. What a mistake!

I'm no psychologist, but it seems all-too-often new board members -- just like new presidents -- want to prove their worth by charting a new path. While I have no problem with their doing so, I do take issue with the ease with which they discard the institution's history and the warnings provided by seasoned board members.

I used to get anguished phone calls from a trustee who was frustrated both by the actions of one of my successors and by his fellow board members. I listened -- and did nothing. Nothing was exactly what I should have done. Nothing was not what his fellow board members should have done, however.

In the business world, corporations often lurch from their original focus. They might change from emphasis on a single product to conglomerate status and then, after a new president comes on board, return to the company's "basics," all because a president wants to make a mark. In the college world, the shifts are not as dramatic -- but the results can be just as disastrous, if the reasons the college or university may have been in trouble in the past are forgotten.

George Santayana said it simply and well: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. As a student of history, I always tried to remember Santayana's admonition. Every president or board member should, too.