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Insight Paper

Structuring the President/Headmaster Emeritus Role

Independent schools with headmasters emeriti do not publish publicly available, formal policies—which implies that the headmaster emeritus role may be less defined or less common at independent schools than the president emeritus role at higher education institutions. However, insights gathered from interviews with university presidents emeriti should transfer to the structure of the headmaster emeritus role. Presidents and headmasters emeriti both report to a board, handle advancement responsibilities (e.g., institutional fundraising), and contribute to the institution’s strategic vision.

This brief from the Independent School Executive Forum outlines university president emeritus insights that can transfer to the headmaster emeritus role at independent schools. Download the executive brief or explore each section below.

Honor former presidents’ distinguished, long-term service

Based on publicly available president emeritus policies at multiple institutions of higher education, administrators grant president emeritus status to former presidents to recognize their extraordinary service to the institution. At Institution C, outgoing presidents eligible for emeritus status must have served for at least 10 years at the university and must remain in “good standing” with the board of trustees when they retire or resign. Contacts at Institution B suggest example metrics of distinguished service: the number of new buildings the president constructed, academic programs the president launched, honorary chairs the president created, and amount of money the president raised during their tenure.

Models of support to the current administration

Presidents emeriti under the honorific status model—in use at Institution B—neither work directly with the current administration nor engage in campus events and activities. However, presidents emeriti may provide informal advice or encouragement to the current administration when requested. In addition, they receive special benefits, including use of the president emeritus title and access to university resources (e.g., business office). Presidents emeriti under the advisory support model—in use at Institution C—receive the same benefits and honors, but spend more time working toward institutional priorities, meet more frequently with current presidents, and provide more concrete (i.e., project-based) support.

Overview of the President Emeritus Role at Profiled Institutions

Honorific Status Model

Advisory Support Model

Institution B
The president emeritus…

  • Does not hold formal responsibilities
  • Occasionally provides ad-hoc counsel to the current president upon request
  • Rarely visits campus, except upon request of the current president

Institution A
The president emeritus…

  • Dedicates four hours per week to emeritus responsibilities
  • Serves as ad-hoc sounding board (e.g., provides encouragement, gives advice) for current president

Institution C
The president emeritus…

  • Dedicates 10 hours per week to emeritus responsibilities
  • Provides project-based support
  • Serves as ad-hoc sounding board for current president

Benefits of President Emeritus Status at Profiled Institutions:

  • At Goucher College, Institution B, and the University of Dayton, presidents emeriti receive a resolution naming and honoring them as presidents emeriti, a listing on the university website, and permission to use the title “president emeritus” in community and professional activities.
  • At Institution B and Institution C, the president emeritus title represents a lifelong appointment. President emeritus policies at Baltimore City Community College, Goucher College, and the University of Dayton do not specify length of appointment.


  • At Institution B, upon invitation by current presidents, presidents emeriti may participate in commencement exercises. At Institution A, Institution B, and Institution C, upon invitation by current presidents, presidents emeriti may participate in university functions and events (e.g., donor events, symposiums).
  • At Institution A, upon invitation by current presidents or other campus offices, presidents emeriti may participate in campus speaking engagements.
  • At Institution B, upon invitation by current presidents or other campus offices, presidents emeriti may serve on institutional advisory boards. For example, the president emeritus served on the advisory board for an honors college and chaired the advisory board for the college of oceanography.
  • When current presidents maintain full authority over whether presidents emeriti participate in university events, current presidents ensure that presidents emeriti do not overshadow them as the public face of the institution.
  • At Institution B, presidents emeriti receive university identification and library cards, eligibility to enroll in university classes at staff rates, access to staff/faculty fitness classes, a university email address, support staff, and a business office. Contacts at Institution B state that the president emeritus uses the business office for external consulting and leadership engagements.
  • At Institution A, presidents emeriti receive an office and support staff (e.g., assistant).
  • At Institution B and Institution C, presidents emeriti receive a campus parking pass.
  • At Institution A, presidents emeriti may receive life insurance.
  • At Institution A, if presidents emeriti serve as tenured professors, they receive the same healthcare benefits of full-time, active employees of the university.
  • At Institution A, presidents emeriti may receive compensation. In contrast, at Institution B and Institution C, the president emeritus role does not confer compensation.

Facilitate transition of donor relations

Since outgoing presidents worthy of emeritus status provided distinguished service to the institution for a substantial period, they possess close relationships with high-priority donors. Outgoing presidents should use these relationships to facilitate donor relationships with incoming presidents.

At Institution A, the outgoing and incoming presidents co-hosted donor events. In addition, the outgoing and incoming presidents conducted joint visits with individual donors to discuss how the incoming president could steward the donor’s relationship to the institution. Contacts at Institution A emphasize that administrators should avoid tasking presidents emeriti to manage specific donor relationships—this approach may complicate donor allegiance to current presidents and negatively impact donor perceptions of current presidents’ leadership.

Mark clear leadership transition

Since presidents emeriti continue to conduct institutional business under the advisory support model, the board of trustees, faculty, and staff may continue to approach presidents emeriti for strategic guidance and decision support. These indirect interactions can undermine new presidents’ authority. To avoid this pitfall, contacts at Institution A and Institution C recommend that the board grant a sabbatical year to presidents emeriti to ensure that new presidents can set an institutional agenda without interference. In addition, presidents emeriti should avoid involvement in campus politics.

Strategies to Clearly Demarcate the Transition of Institutional Leadership

Purpose: to ensure that new presidents can set an institutional agenda without interference

  • Presidents emeriti at both Institution A and Institution C took a yearlong sabbatical (i.e., leave of absence) upon retirement from the presidency.
  • During this year, the president emeritus at Institution A intentionally did not visit campus except by request of the current president. For example, the president emeritus attended the current president’s inauguration ceremony.

Purpose: to ensure current presidents remain the public face of the institution

  • At Institution C, administrators ensure that public-facing communications (e.g., press releases, project webpage) related to the development project led by the president emeritus do not contain any mention of the president emeritus.
  • When writing letters to donors, the president emeritus always indicates that they act on behalf of the current president.

Purpose: to avoid negative impact on stakeholder perception of new presidents’ leadership

  • At Institution A, contacts emphasize that presidents emeriti should not engage in campus politics and controversial campus issues.
  • For example, when the administration had to respond to a surprise move by adjunct faculty to unionize, the president emeritus intentionally declined to contribute to the administration’s response.