The Nontraditional President

A general resigns, an oil man has his first day and a lobbyist now works on behalf of the university he leads -- three college presidents who took the path less taken.
March 14, 2008

Last Friday, Mississippi State University’s president, Robert H. "Doc" Foglesong, formerly a four-star general in the U.S. Air Force, announced he was stepping down no later than June 30.

On Monday, Bruce D. Benson, a big-time businessman and politician, marked his first day as president of the University of Colorado system.

“What do I bring to it? I think what I bring to it is a business sense. I’ve run a lot of different kinds of businesses in my life,” says Benson, a self-described “oil guy” who understands the “oil business inside and out.” But Benson recalls managing a mortgage servicing business once with almost no knowledge of the industry. What he did have were smart people around him.

“That’s what I have here," says Benson, a major player in the state Republican party who has served on a variety of boards and commissions in K-12 and higher education but has only a bachelor's degree. "I have outstanding [campus] chancellors that I’m going to pay a lot of attention to and the same thing about my vice presidents.”

"The big part," he says, "is how do you work with the governor, the legislature, the [state] commission on higher education, the business community, to make sure that they're still on the same page with us."

College presidents coming from outside the standard academic pipeline -- department chair to dean to provost to president -- aren’t new in academe, but in part because of some recent examples that have generated significant controversy, they’re attracting attention. They’re often perceived as bringing singular gifts when it comes to fulfilling the college presidency's increasingly external functions -- fund raising and, particularly in the case of public institutions, government relations. But nontraditional presidents like Benson, elected into office on a 6-3 board vote amid extensive opposition, often face contested hiring processes and intense faculty scrutiny. And, internally speaking, they always face an organizational culture entirely foreign to them.

“My experience is there is a bit of a higher risk when you go nontraditionally,” says R. William (Bill) Funk, a presidential search consultant.

“It has to do with an understanding or a lack of understanding of the culture in higher education. I think there are individuals who can do it from outside, but it seems to me it’s that intrinsic understanding of how unique higher education administration is.”

In hiring from the academic ranks, “You’ve got predictability in that,” explains Jan Greenwood, also a search consultant. “They’ve been tested in higher ed culture, they’ve been tested in leadership in higher ed, they’ve been tested in research in higher ed,” she says -- stressing that the assumption that someone tested outside higher education will necessarily be more successful in raising funds or working with the legislature than a traditional academic is a faulty one.

The Nontraditionals

The American Council on Education’s 2007 report on the college presidency found that 13.1 percent of presidents came directly from prior positions outside higher education, a dip from 14.7 percent in 2001 (but an increase from 10.1 percent in 1986). Private colleges were more likely to hire leaders from outside higher education than public ones -- although, unsurprisingly, some of the most high-profile examples of late have not been the leaders of small, tuition-dependent liberal arts colleges but those of big public universities and systems.

Included in those numbers would be presidents embodying what Greenwood calls "the hybrid model" -- academics-turned-something else-turned-presidents -- like the University of Kentucky's Lee T. Todd Jr. An associate professor of engineering at Kentucky through 1983 when he left for industry, Todd came to his presidency in 2001 from a senior vice president position at an IBM subsidiary.

Among the "nontraditionals" are Erskine Bowles, president of the University of North Carolina system, formerly a private equity firm partner, U.S. Senate candidate and White House chief of staff in Bill Clinton's administration. Another system head, Erroll B. Davis Jr., the chancellor in Georgia, came to his job from a position as chairman of the board at Alliant Energy Corporation. Earlier this month, the New York Times profiled President John A. Fry, of Franklin & Marshall College, in Pennsylvania, for rising through the ranks within higher education, yes -- but on the business end of things.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a major trend yet. But I think it’s being noticed because these choices are the result of a tremendous pressure on presidents to bring in revenue for their institutions. There is just a huge pressure to bring in private gifts and federal and state funding,” says Rita Bornstein, president emerita at Rollins College and author of Legitimacy in the Academic Presidency (Praeger, 2003).

“Academic folks are sometimes good at the external work and sometimes not good at it. And so I think that institutions have been reaching out now to folks who can bring home the bacon, so to speak. Because everyone is struggling in higher education, except for the very wealthy institutions, to stabilize and prepare for the future.”

On that note, the selection of Benson as the leader of Colorado’s system despite his lack of academic credentials is explained in one word: money. With Colorado at the bottom of the pack in terms of per-capita state funding, “the critical issues for us are funding, funding, funding,” a system spokesman told Inside Higher Ed during the selection process. “Not only is [Benson] perhaps the most prodigious fund raiser in the state in general, but he’s shown he can work to develop coalitions of education and business leaders.”

Benson, seen as the architect of an attack on tenure at Metropolitan State College of Denver during his service as board chair there, was appointed despite faculty opposition. In February, the Faculty Assembly at the University of Colorado at Boulder voted 40-4, with three abstentions, against Benson’s selection.

Mississippi State's General

Photo: Mississippi State University

Robert H. "Doc" Foglesong

Two other nontraditional presidents who faced contested search processes have likewise been in the news of late: Mississippi State’s Foglesong, in announcing his resignation after only two years, and Mike Garrison, a former top lobbyist who took over in September at West Virginia University. The latter institution was recently roiled by scandal involving a disputed degree granted to the governor's daughter.

In Foglesong’s case, the search that resulted in his hiring “could be summarized in one word and that’s secretive,” says Robert Wolverton, president of Mississippi State’s Faculty Senate (and formerly a college administrator and president). Foglesong, who holds a Ph.D. in chemical engineering, arrived on campus “from what I call a totally different culture,” says Wolverton. “Thirty-three years I think he had in the Air Force, very respected, four-star general. At that level, in that type of organization, your job primarily is to command. It’s very difficult to carry all that into a university setting.”

Externally speaking, Wolverton says, Foglesong, who formed a rock band as one of his first moves at Mississippi State, thrived. “When he went out on the stump, he could really fire up people about this university," Wolverton says. Internally speaking, however, he had some small stumbles that blew up. He recently faced controversy for instance, of all things, over what was perceived of as a presidential directive to uproot the daffodils (called “the great daffodil genocide of 2008” in an editorial by students at the rival public, the University of Mississippi). The Clarion-Ledger, in Jackson, also reported that Foglesong had faced questions for not attending Faculty Senate meetings.

“He did say he was a bit intimidated by the Faculty Senate, which numbers only 50,” says Wolverton. He adds that some faculty wanted him at meetings while others thought his time was better spent out raising money and such.

“One would have to say the culture of commanding took over the culture of leadership and they really are not the same,” says Wolverton.

Foglesong, through a spokeswoman, declined a request for an interview. However, Thomas C. Meredith, the commissioner of higher education in Mississippi, praised the president's accomplishments, saying the resignation was a big surprise and emphasizing that he was not forced out.

And in a statement released Thursday, Foglesong references a number of accomplishments he achieved in half the time he expected, clearing the way for a successor. These include the development of a long-term strategy, termed FutureState 2015, and increases in external research funding and enrollment to their highest totals ever.

“We had the largest freshman class ever this year; we had the best retention ever; we had the highest number of African Americans ever enrolled; we had the highest graduate enrollment ever; we had the highest enrollment ever at the Meridian Campus; and while we did all of that, our average ACT scores for entering freshmen went up significantly. We needed a process to recruit and retain quality students -- mission complete.”

Lobbying for West Virginia U.

“Each time you do a presidential search, the first thing you do is assess the situation of a campus at that particular time, and then you look for someone who’s just right for an institution at that time,” says Meredith, the Mississippi commissioner. “Institutions go through constant transitions if you will, so the search that you might do today might look different than the search you did two years ago or the search you might do five years from now.”

At West Virginia University last year, faculty voted no confidence in the search process, which culminated in the board choosing Mike Garrison, a lawyer, lobbyist and former chief of staff for Democratic Gov. Bob Wise, over the faculty favorite, M. Duane Nellis, Kansas State University’s provost and a former West Virginia dean.

Photo: West Virginia U.

Mike Garrison


Today, several Faculty Senate leaders describe Garrison as making positive strides for the university. “He is very ambitious for this campus and is an 'action' type of guy who wants to see things done,” Donald E. Hall, the English department chair and author of the Faculty Senate's no-confidence resolution in the presidential search process last year, wrote in an e-mail. “Every presidential candidate has her or his strengths -- Garrison's were always recognized as ones deriving from his ability to work within the political structure of the state of West Virginia. And he has used those well for us. There have been no surprises in that arena. The only surprise for some of us who did not know him before he was appointed is just how eager he is to work with faculty and others as he leads the university.”

As for questions circulating about whether an M.B.A. granted to the governor's daughter was actually earned? Hall says the president’s response to the investigative panel’s report and recommendations “will be a defining moment."

“All of us want to see this university thrive -- certainly President Garrison does -- and the integrity of that decision will go a long ways toward assuring everyone that we are headed collectively in the right direction," Hall says.

“It does go to the heart of our academic integrity as an institution,” says Garrison (who, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which broke the story, previously served as a lobbyist to the company employing the governor's daughter and is her high school classmate and family friend).

“Nothing’s more important to us as a university. Nothing’s more important to me as an individual.”

In an interview between Big East tournament basketball games Thursday, Garrison also recounted a few of his early accomplishments. In the fall, the board approved the largest salary increase for faculty and staff since 1993, and plans to open a child care center are moving forward after 30 years of planning. (“We thought that 30 years was plenty of time to determine whether we needed one or not,” Garrison says, reflecting the attitude boards often hope nontraditional presidents will bring with them when confronted by academe’s slow pace).

And in a legislative session that ended Saturday, lawmakers approved a $50 million proposed program designed to stimulate university research.

“I genuinely think that this was mainly Mike Garrison’s agenda that was passed on Saturday,” says J. Steven Kite, chair of the Faculty Senate. “It helps to have one of the best lobbyists in the state as your president.”


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