'Socrates in the Boardroom'

Many professors believe instinctively that their colleges and universities are better off being led by presidents with genuine academic careers, as opposed to those

November 2, 2009

Many professors believe instinctively that their colleges and universities are better off being led by presidents with genuine academic careers, as opposed to those

who have spent decades as professional administrators. A recent book on public higher education describes professors mocking administrators for having lightweight academic credentials. And some presidential flame-outs involving leaders without traditional academic backgrounds have been blamed, in part, on their lack of academic pedigrees.

But can one prove that colleges or universities are best off with real academics as leader?

Amanda H. Goodall thinks you can, at least with regard to research universities. Her new book, Socrates in the Boardroom: Why Research Universities Should Be Led by Top Scholars (Princeton University Press) is a mix of quantitative and philosophical arguments.

Goodall, a fellow at the University of Warwick, in Britain, bases her work on analysis of the research records of those who have led top universities, and also on interviews with a number of presidents of top American and British universities.

Her book builds on research she has published previously in which she uses citation rankings (in which scholars are rated by the frequency with which their work is cited by others) as a proxy for academic quality of a scholar. While Goodall acknowledges that such measurements aren't perfect, she said that they do give a sense of the impact of a given researcher. She has documented more movement to the top ranks (of national and international rankings, which she acknowledges as well are not perfect measures) -- both of universities and business schools -- at institutions that are led by presidents or deans with high citation rankings.

Ultimately, she says, research universities should be led by those who share a passion for what the institution is about -- producing knowledge.

This is important, she writes in the book, for four primary (and inter-related) reasons:

  • "Scholars are more credible leaders," better able to earn the respect of the faculty, and this "legitimacy extends a leader's power and influence."
  • Scholars who are presidents come into office with "a deep understanding or expert knowledge about the core business of universities." And that knowledge should inform decisions.
  • Presidents set "the quality threshold in a university" and so a president who has an outstanding record in research becomes "a standard bearer."
  • "A president who is a researcher sends a signal to the faculty that the leader shares their scholarly values...."

The most common argument against such a vision is that these benefits are outweighed by the need to hire presidents who are outstanding fund raisers, who have political savvy and who are expert managers. Goodall says that there's no question that research universities need to be led by people with such skills, but she rejects the idea that there is an either/or choice.

"The top scholar can be the most inspiring fund raiser," she said in an interview. (A podcast is available here.)

"I'm not suggesting we find some Nobel Prize winner who hasn't seen daylight for three years" for every top presidency, she said. But academe has become "obsessed with managerialism" to the extent that too many universities are led by those who don't exemplify academic values, Goodall said.

One reason for the popularity of the false dichotomy, Goodall said, is that far too few universities take the time to train talented scholars in management. Academics should be given "short, sharp, focused" experiences with administrative duties, throughout their careers, so they can gain management know-how while also continuing to advance their research agendas.

Even with this training, Goodall said that presidents will probably come from the ranks of those who have become deans or provosts, not straight from the professoriate. But she's looking to see more presidents for whom time in a laboratory or archive isn't a distant memory.

Another argument given by some in favor of presidential candidates who have been administrators for a long time is that the modern research university is so complicated financially, and features such diverse entities as medical centers and big-time athletics programs, that it is the rare academic who can handle the responsibility.

Here Goodall is a big believer in delegation. "You can't be good at everything," she said. And there's no shame in an academic hiring (non-academic) specialists to oversee finances and other parts of the university. But to lead the institution, she said, it is important to remember that finances and athletics are "not the core business" of a research university. Scholarship is, she said, and that should point the way to a good president.


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