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University presidents’ turnover and survival: the case of Chile


Over the last four decades, the number of universities in Chile has increased dramatically (from eight to more than 50), along with the total enrollment of students (from 100,000 to 670,000 approximately). University presidents have played an increasingly important and complex role in this process. Meanwhile, understanding what happens at the very top of universities and who governs them is long overdue. Thus far, no study has attempted to understand what drives university presidents’ survival in Chile. Drawing on scholarship on university presidents’ turnover and on presidential survival from political science, we approach universities as political entities in which actors compete for power and office. Using an original dataset, we quantitatively analyze 236 presidents from 60 different Chilean universities between 1990 and 2019 to determine why some presidents stay in office while other involuntarily steps down. Our results show that survival is chiefly explained by the university’s level of institutionalization (accreditation and year of foundation), whether it is public (state-owned) or private, and the frequency of street protests against presidents.

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  1. Based on Mayhew’s (1974) and Bueno de Mesquita and Smith’s (2011) ideas about leaders’ ambitions, we consider that university presidents are essentially office-seeking players. Hence, presidents have important incentives to run for another term when university statutes allow it. In that sense, not seeking reelection falls within the conceptual umbrella of involuntary turnover.

  2. Both year of foundation and accreditation may serve as proxies for how well-known and prestigious a university is perceived in Chile. About the relation between accreditation and reputation in Chilean universities, see Fleet, Pedraja-Rejas, and Rodríguez-Ponce (2014).

  3. Villalobos Dintrans’ (2019: 48-49) dataset records all event protests associated with secondary education institutions (e.g., high schools) and universities (and colleges), based on four major national daily newspapers: La Nación, La Tercera, El Mercurio, and La Segunda. Since Villalobos Dintrans’ (2019) dataset describes each protest event, we filtered only those protests that were specifically directed at university presidents.

  4. The elected is then formally appointed by the president of the republic.

  5. Interestingly, state-owned universities have evolved into this presidentialism-like design, but so have these four private schools: Universidad de Concepción, Universidad Austral de Chile, Universidad Federico Santa María, and Universidad Academia Humanismo Cristiano.

  6. Information is not available for three private universities.

  7. Faculty, student, and administrative staff influence in private schools’ government is much more limited than in state-owned universities.

  8. Technically, the shortest tenure is 121 day-long, which is censored by the end of the observation period (Rector Fabián González, Universidad Academia de Humanismo Cristiano, who took office on April 1, 2019).

  9. The fact that survival is shorter in private schools, although at this descriptive stage, suggests a different pattern from what is observed in the USA.

  10. Although not reported here, we ran separate analyses testing for the impact of majoring in the following fields: education, engineering and engineering trades, business and administration, social and behavioral sciences, and humanities. We only find statistical evidence that holding a business and administration degree is negatively associated with presidential survival. Yet, this effect was significant only for model 2. The reasons behind such effect are unknown to us.

  11. We thank one of Higher Education’s anonymous reviewers for bringing this to our attention.

  12. We do not have thorough information regarding Chilean presidents’ salaries, since it can be accessed for public universities and from recent years only, which is an important limitation.

  13. That was the case of Francisco Vio (Universidad Bolivariana, 1995), Juan Domínguez (Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez, 1999), René Martínez and Luis Lucero (Universidad Central, 2000 and 2005, respectively), Patricia Cabello (Universidad de las Américas, 2006), Gastón Zegard and Roberto Castro (Universidad del Aconcagua, 2015 and 2017, respectively), and Alberto Vásquez (Universidad Gabriela Mistral, 2017), among others.


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Our research has been funded by (a) FONDECYT Iniciación, Grant No. 11160438, from Chile’s Comisión Nacional de Inivestgación Científica y Tecnológica (CONICYT), and (b) Proyecto VIP UCT, Grant No. 2020REG-CM-03, from Universidad Católica de Temuco’s Vicerrectoría de Investigación y Postgrado. We are thankful of Cristóbal Villalobos Dintrans for making available his data on student protests in Chile.

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Martínez, C.A., Arellano, J.C. University presidents’ turnover and survival: the case of Chile. High Educ 82, 541–560 (2021).

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  • University presidents
  • Presidential survival
  • Presidential turnover
  • Survival analysis
  • Institutionalization
  • Chile