Bold Choices

Grinnell's new president reflects growing trend of liberal arts colleges hiring leaders from different kinds of institutions -- a development that may also increase the diversity of the selections.
February 18, 2010

Grinnell College on Wednesday named its new president -- Raynard S. Kington, deputy director of the National Institutes of Health -- a choice that experts say reflects a subtle shift going on in the presidential selection process at liberal arts colleges.

Kington was educated at research universities and has worked exclusively at research institutions. An expert on the social factors that relate to health and a member of the Institute of Medicine, Kington entered college at 16 and had earned his M.D. by 21.

His selection, some say, reflects an increased willingness of colleges and universities, most notably liberal arts colleges, to consider as presidents people who have never been provosts or presidents at similar institutions, but who have achieved significant accomplishments in other kinds of research or educational institutions. In several other cases, deans of research universities have landed liberal arts college presidencies -- and while that is not new, experts perceive a change in attitude as more institutions embrace this model.

Kington, who is black and gay, also reflects what many see as an increased willingness by many colleges to consider a more diverse pool of leaders than they might have in the past.

Richard Ekman, president of the Council on Independent Colleges, said that less competitive colleges have been selecting non-traditional presidents for some time. Where the pattern is growing, he said, is among more prominent liberal arts colleges that in the past might have been more likely to go with someone with considerable experience in the liberal arts sector.

"More selective institutions are departing from the traditional norms," he said. "The argument is that someone who has extensive experience in a wider institution could be an effective president of a small private college," he said. And when those people come from research universities, many of them "are a job two or three steps down from the presidency," not the provost. (This path is also leading, after some years of concern over the graying of the presidency, to the naming of a number of presidents in their 40s, including Kington, who is 49.)

Consider some new or incoming presidents who moved or are moving from very different institutions. The new president of Dartmouth College (admittedly not a liberal arts college, but an institution that embraces many liberal arts college values) is Jim Yong Kim, who was chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard University. Williams College just tapped as its next president Adam F. Falk, a physicist who is a dean at Johns Hopkins University and has spent his entire higher education career at research universities. At Hopkins, Falk followed Daniel H. Weiss, who went from Hopkins (and a career outside liberal arts colleges) to become president of Lafayette College. Hampden-Sydney's new president is Christopher B. Howard, who was previously an administrator of the University of Oklahoma. Marvin Krislov became president of Oberlin College in 2007, coming from the University of Michigan, where he was vice president and general counsel.

Mount Holyoke's new president, Lynn Pasquerella, is an alumna of the college, but her academic career has been at universities (the University of Rhode Island and the University of Hartford). When she takes office, the four liberal arts colleges that with the University of Massachusetts at Amherst make up the Five Colleges consortium will all be led by people whose previous jobs were at universities -- with Hampshire and Smith Colleges led by former officials of the University of California at Berkeley, and Amherst College led by a former Columbia University professor.

To be sure, there have been such appointments in the past, and there are plenty of liberal arts colleges selecting as their leaders people who have held senior positions at other liberal arts colleges. But Ekman and others said that there is an increased willingness to think about different kinds of candidates and to pick them.

"The downturn in the economy has led search committees, including the faculty members on the committees as well as the board members, to place a higher premium on people who will be successful fund raisers and who they believe will be able to manage budgets, including restructuring resources," said one search consultant who asked not to be identified. And those factors count more than prior experience at a similar college, the consultant said.

Several of those who made the transition say that their jobs as deans at large research institutions were so focused on fund raising that search committees knew of their effectiveness on financial matters. Ralph Hexter said that (due to different donor bases) he raised more money as a dean at Berkeley than as president of Hampshire. Thomas Kunkel, who was dean of the journalism school at the University of Maryland at College Park before becoming president of St. Norbert College, said he was raising the same amount there as he does as a president. Lacking that fund raising experience, he said, he doesn't think he would have been a strong candidate for a presidency.

"I think colleges are looking for a set of skills," including commitment to the institutional mission, but they "don't want to be self-limiting" by not considering those with a different path.

Kington, in an interview, said that it is also important to remember that liberal arts colleges themselves are complicated to lead. "I think they realize that the skills needed to run large complex organizations are not just found in the traditional academic community, or in traditional positions," he said.

Susan Resneck Pierce, a senior consultant at Academic Search, said that it's not surprising that deans at research universities are getting presidencies at liberal arts colleges. "The deans function in the same way presidents do, even if not totally," she said. "They tend to be responsible for fund raising, for the budget for their own colleges, for admissions" and more.

At the same time, she said that she sees the job of provosts at liberal arts colleges changing in ways that will make many of them equally viable candidates. She said that provosts are playing much more of a role in fund raising at many of these institutions than they used to, and that those skills will be attractive to search committees.

A Gay President

Kington will also be joining a still small group of openly gay college presidents. The Grinnell press release matter-of-factly included his family: "Dr. Kington; his partner, Peter T. Daniolos M.D., a child psychiatrist at Children’s National Medical Center and George Washington University; and their two young children plan to move to Grinnell during the summer and occupy the president’s home at the college."

Hampshire's Hexter, who is also a member of that small group, said that he views the appointment as a sign of progress, of "another glass ceiling shattered." Hexter said that given Grinnell's wealth and stature, and its location in Iowa (which, he added is a progressive state on gay rights, and one in which gay people can marry), Kington will be noticed and will send a positive message to other colleges.

One search consultant who asked not to be identified said that the impact of the appointment on the candidacies of other gay academics for senior positions would vary, based on the attitudes of the institutions involved. This consultant described a recent search for a senior college official where a search committee noted that the finalist pool included female and minority candidates, and expressed concern that it didn't include any gay candidates. (Actually, the search committee members were told that they didn't realize it, but the finalists did include a gay candidate.)

But this consultant noted that not all search committee members are as comfortable with gay candidates, and that Grinnell's prestige could therefore make a difference. "I think the fact that Grinnell has taken that step might make it easier for people who don't have biases to make the argument that people on the search committee who have biases are out of line."

As for Kington, he said that it is "just a matter of time" until there are more gay presidents. He said he hopes he can encourage all kinds of students. "If students can look at me and see possibilities that they otherwise wouldn't have seen, then that's a great thing -- however they see those possibilities, and whether they are minority students or gay students or scientists, or whomever, can look at me and see that I made it."


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