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  • Turnaround: Leading Stressed Colleges and Universities to Excellence
  • James C. Hearn
Turnaround: Leading Stressed Colleges and Universities to Excellence by James Martin, James E. Samels, and Associates. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. 307 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0801890680.

In the words of this book’s dust jacket, Turnaround is aimed at giving leaders of imperiled higher education institutions “the tools they need to put their fragile institutions back on the path to success.” Although apparently written before the [End Page 716] recessionary pressures of 2008–2009 emerged in full force, the need for such a book was and is clearly strong. Based on their own leadership and consulting experience, authors James Martin and James Samels suggest that as many as one fourth of the nation’s colleges and universities are “stressed.” Definitions of stress vary, of course, but the estimate seems entirely plausible.

The authors have some experience in the topic at hand. Martin is a former vice president and provost at Mount Ida College. Samels is the founder of two higher-education consulting firms, including the Education Alliance, where he serves as CEO and president and Martin serves as vice president. Separately and together, they have worked with numerous institutions and produced many publications aimed at improving institutional management and leadership. Martin and Samels also bring an impressive list of contributors into the book as chapter authors, in the style of an edited volume. Among the 19 associated authors are several former and current presidents, vice presidents, deans, and association heads.

At the most general level, the book is oriented toward providing “a comprehensive handbook for higher education practitioners” (p. ix). The authors’ more specific purposes are to help their readers identify institutional weaknesses and vulnerabilities, implement plans for improvement, mitigate existing damages, identify legal pitfalls and avoid them, and develop skills in directing a turnaround. Martin and Samels elucidate several characteristics of turned-around institutions and present ten lessons regarding successful turnarounds.

In an engaging first chapter, Martin and Samels argue that the principal drivers of institutional weakness are high leadership turnover, declining state support, rising technology budgets, demanding students and alumni, and the general commodification of higher education. Usefully, they provide some specific empirical indicators of distress, including, inter alia, tuition discount rates over 35%, tuition dependency over 85%, student default rates over 5%, debt service over 10% of the annual budget, average annual tuition increases of over 8% over the past five years, and an average faculty age of 58 or higher.

To ensure that the book attends to and reflects what is happening beyond the borders of individual North American campuses, the book’s introductory chapter is followed by Bruce Johnstone’s thoughtful examination of institutional fragility in an international lens and by Daniel Levin’s essay on his view as a Washington, DC-based foundation and association official. In the following chapters, contributors focus on various specific aspects of dire institutional circumstances: leadership, boards, academic affairs, student affairs, finances, fund-raising, accreditation, religious institutions, for-profit institutions, legal issues, institutional research, and external relations. The book closes with a chapter by Martin and Samels recommending how institutions might best initiate effective action in the pursuit of turnaround.

How well does the volume deliver on its goal of moving troubled colleges and universities from stress to excellence? On this question, I suspect that one reader’s answer may vary appreciably from another’s, depending on one’s views on what constitutes convincing evidence. Each of the contributors’ career accomplishments make them undeniably qualified to write from experience relating to the book’s topic. For readers who view scholarly research as too often off-target from their own professional needs, this volume may deliver precisely what is wanted. [End Page 717]

On the other hand, many of the chapters may fall short of expectations for those who distrust inferences and generalizations not drawn from intensive empirical work. The contributors are not always sensitive to institutional differences by sector, control, and the like, and there is a tendency in some chapters to make too much of limited evidence. The predominant authorial voice in this book is one of generalizing from personal experiences, interactions...


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