Last Nonacademic President? Not a Chance

Despite the debacle at Mount St. Mary's, some presidential search committees are likely to continue to seek out candidates without traditional academic careers, experts say.

March 2, 2016
 

Almost as soon as the news surfaced that Simon Newman was quitting as president of Mount St. Mary's University, faculty members at that institution and elsewhere started to celebrate. On social media, they said they hoped to see fewer presidents like Newman -- a business executive and consultant, not an academic -- leading colleges. One comment on Twitter: "Dreaming: All corporate-style #highered leaders resigned."

Newman struck many faculty members as the ultimate example of why they fear presidential candidates who are not academics. There was his Bain consulting background, his Darwinist arguments for culling students by treating those at risk as bunnies to drown, his discussion of how the liberal arts curriculum was difficult to "sell" to students, his firing faculty members for not showing "loyalty," and more. Many of his critics attributed some of his errors to a lack of appreciation for academic culture and values. While Mount St. Mary's is a small private college, concerns have been raised about the nonacademic background of the new president of the University of Iowa, Bruce Harreld, and about others.

And so professors reading about those and other colleges have been wondering: How many presidents these days are from outside academe, and will the controversy at Mount St. Mary's discourage such hires?

How many are there? They remain a distinct minority. The American Council on Education analyzes the career patterns that lead to the presidency. The last such study was in 2012, when ACE found that 20 percent of presidents reported that their prior position was outside academe. That was up from 13 percent in 2006.

Despite that increase, the survey found that most presidents have very academic-oriented careers. More than half reported having never worked outside academe.

People who advise boards on presidential hiring don't expect the Mount St. Mary's situation, alarming as it would be to many trustees to see a presidency end in under a year, to scare off search committees from seeking nontraditional candidates.

"I doubt that this one episode will alter the interest on the part of some search committees in appointing a president who they think has experience as a change agent, is entrepreneurial and has financial expertise," said Susan Resneck Pierce, who formerly worked as a search consultant and is president emerita of the University of Puget Sound, and author of Governance Reconsidered and On Being Presidential, both published by Jossey-Bass.

"Some boards also believe that someone who has raised venture capital will translate that to fund-raising," she said.

It's important to remember, Pierce added, that Newman wasn't the only nontraditional president, and that many have done well. She cited people like Tom Ross at Davidson College, Barry Mills at Bowdoin College and John Brademas at New York University (reaching much farther back) as examples.

A pattern she has noticed is that nontraditional candidates who succeed "have had experience at a comparable institutions -- as a student, a faculty member, a staff member or a trustee." It is true, she said, that "college and university cultures can be like a foreign country to someone from outside the academy."

Pierce also said that the issue of culture clash doesn't just affect nonacademics in academe. Presidents who are going from large publics to small privates (or vice versa), she said, also have cultural issues to address if they are to succeed.

Jessica Kozloff, president of Academic Search, said that the Mount St. Mary's situation "won't stop the interest in nontraditional candidates." Kozloff cautioned against viewing the Mount St. Mary's controversy as strictly about a nonacademic president. She argued that the case may be more about what happens when a new president says the wrong things -- and people find out.

"It seems to me this is as much a case history in social media and the spotlight on anything a senior executive says, as well as the important issue of whether a new president understands the culture of an institution, and whether any new president has the judgment to know when and how to say something," she said via email. "It can be very volatile when you combine the glare of social media and instant news with mistakes that new presidents -- whether nontraditional or traditional -- make."

There may be more of a "cultural leap" for those from outside of academe, but they aren't the only ones to face these issues, Kozloff said.

Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, said that he views nontraditional presidents as the right choice at many institutions -- regardless of what happened at Mount St. Mary's.

"To be a healthy industry, higher education has to have its top leadership positions [filled] mostly by people who have come up through the ranks," Ekman said. "If it tilted too much away that would be a bad thing," but there are times when "a nontraditional person can do a good job."

Newman is an example of a nontraditional president who "has been disastrous," but that doesn't mean they all are, Ekman said.

Part of the problem, Ekman said, may be when boards have unrealistic expectations that lead them to select a nontraditional candidate. Ekman said he worries about "the institution that wants to hire the hotshot turnaround business guy" where the board thinks it "is hiring a magician" who can "wave a magic wand."

Even as Ekman said he sees value in nontraditional presidents for some institutions, he too worries about whether they are getting enough of an understanding of how academe may differ from the business or government worlds where they may have worked before. CIC is organizing a meeting this summer, "Navigating a New Culture," to help presidents who are new to private higher education, and in some cases to higher education generally. (Disclosure: The author of this article will be speaking at the meeting.)

Ekman said boards that do hire nonacademic presidents can't assume they will be able to simply learn on the job as they go on. It is too easy, Ekman said, for a new nontraditional president to "make disastrous mistakes in early days, and those mistakes may plague them" throughout a presidency.

The view that college boards will continue to hire nontraditional candidates isn't just held by those who see value in some of those leaders. Benjamin Ginsberg, the David Bernstein Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University, studied academic decision making and power shifts for his 2011 book, The Fall of the Faculty (Oxford University Press), and he is not a fan of nonacademic presidents.

Ginsberg said via email that he's not expecting to see a change as a result of Mount St. Mary's.

"Boards of Trustees, composed of businesspeople and the executive search firms they employ, will continue to look for presidents from a business background," he said. "Often these individuals lack academic values and do not see much difference between a university and any other business. They value managerial hierarchy, practical knowledge and cater to customer preferences when universities function best under conditions of managerial anarchy. They should impart skills that may seem impractical but provide lifelong benefits, and should teach rather than cater to their customers. The debacle at Mount St. Mary's is only the tip of the iceberg."

Nonacademic Background, Experienced in Academe

Much of the discussion about nonacademic presidents assumes two models: the traditional Ph.D. who has worked his or her way up the ranks vs. an M.B.A. outsider. Several search consultants noted that there is a middle ground in people who may not have pursued traditional academic careers but who have worked in higher education before becoming president. And this model may also be attractive to search committees, they said.

Consider Mark Burstein, president of Lawrence University. His highest degree is an M.B.A. and he started his career working for Bear Stearns and the city of New York. But before he became president of Lawrence, a liberal arts college, he worked for 20 years in senior administrative positions at Columbia and Princeton Universities (on the business side of the house), and he joined (and continues to serve on) the board of his undergraduate alma mater, Vassar College.

Burstein said in an interview that he thinks he is a better president for those experiences than he would have been had he just held positions in the business world and then sought a college presidency.

"I think to really be successful in the academy you need to have passion and understanding for the core values, and those are about the centrality of education and scholarship, a belief in shared governance, and a commitment to a sense of community," he said.

Asked if he would be a different president had he come up through the traditional ranks, with a Ph.D., Burstein said that "it's hard for me to judge that. I don't know what the world would be like if I did have a Ph.D."

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