Picking Political Presidents

Search processes prove to be a key point of contention as West Florida and Kennesaw State have considered making politicians university presidents.

October 7, 2016
 
Attorney General of Georgia
Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens is in line to become the next president at Kennesaw State University.

It’s about a five-hour drive from Kennesaw State University’s campuses outside of Atlanta to the University of West Florida in that state’s panhandle. But in the last few months the two institutions traced very similar paths toward picking new presidents.

In September West Florida seemed poised to choose a politician for its next president. Term-limited Republican State Senator Don Gaetz was named one of four finalists for the job early in the month, sparking objections from faculty members and others who felt largely shut out of the search process. Other objections included the legislator’s lack of higher education experience and his record in office -- a record that included crafting Florida’s controversial performance-based funding system.

Kennesaw State currently sits on the brink of having a longtime politician as its own president. Georgia’s Republican attorney general, Sam Olens, appears to be a shoo-in for the position when the University System of Georgia Board of Regents votes for Kennesaw State’s next president Oct. 12. System Chancellor Hank Huckaby endorsed Olens, who is the only candidate under consideration for the position, even as students and faculty members protested the lack of an open search along with what some see as the attorney general’s antigay record and higher ed inexperience.

Rumors long preceded both politicians’ public candidacy for the university presidencies, raising suspicions that they'd been picked for the positions before full searches even started. But that’s where the similarities might end, as it appears likely the two universities’ presidential searches are set to turn out differently. West Florida trustees ultimately chose Provost Martha Saunders for president over Gaetz in a contentious vote, while Olens remains the only candidate to lead Kennesaw State.

The 33,000-student Kennesaw State and 13,000-student West Florida are two of the latest examples of increasing interest among boards in turning politicians into university presidents. It's a tactic often pursued at public institutions squeezed by tight state funding. While the idea often inflames passions on campus, experts say it can lead to a successful presidency -- if the right person is chosen and, critically, if the process is seen as fair.

As of 2011, just 2 percent of presidents had been elected or appointed government officials immediately before becoming college presidents, according to the most recent version of the American College President study from the American Council on Education. Previous editions of the study did not break out elected or appointed government officials but found that less than 2 percent of presidents had worked in local, state or federal government in their previous positions.

“It’s still a small movement,” said Kevin Reilly, president emeritus at the University of Wisconsin System and a consultant with the higher education search firm AGB Search. “There aren’t many of them that are doing it, but there is a little bit of a trend in that regard.”

Think about the skills a president needs to have at a modern university -- especially public universities, Reilly said. Presidents are spending more and more time away from campus and dealing with external forces.

That means they need to be able to relate to elected officials and their staff members at the local, state and federal levels. They need to be able to raise money. They need to be good communicators and show media savvy. They need to be able to build the image of their institutions. And they need to be able to navigate different groups that often have varying political viewpoints.

Interest in ex-politicians as campus presidents fits into a larger trend of nontraditional presidential candidates, Reilly said. He also said there is nothing new about politically active people leading colleges and universities.

Thomas Jefferson is credited in the founding of the University of Virginia. Dwight Eisenhower was Columbia University’s president from 1948 to 1953, just before he became president of the United States. Robert Gates was a former Central Intelligence Agency director when he became president of Texas A&M University in 2002. He later became secretary of defense from 2006 to 2011 and more recently became chancellor of the College of William and Mary in 2012. Rebecca Blank was acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce before becoming chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Madison in July 2013.

There are examples of former officials, former businesspeople, former military officers and former academics who have succeeded as presidents, Reilly said. There are also myriad examples from all backgrounds who have struggled and failed. For presidents coming from outside the halls of academe, the difference between success and struggling often seems to be demonstrating an appreciation for academic culture and a willingness to understand more about it, Reilly said.

“I think about it a lot when I work with campuses on search issues,” he said. “It’s always some tension between the board wanting to keep a broad look and some folks worried about not having someone who has a Ph.D. and who has been a core faculty member.”

Still, presidents from a political background can draw a special level of concern from faculty members worried about ideology affecting their classrooms. Businesspeople and former members of the military might bring their own biases and outside ideas to a presidency, but they don't come with the same record of strong views, political baggage and potential to polarize as many well-known politicians do.

Nor do they come with concerns that politically appointed trustees or regents tailored a job description for a favored member of their political party.

Concern often grows among faculty members when it appears a politician-turned-presidential candidate is being handed the job due largely to political connections. At Kennesaw State, points of protest have included Olens’s record as attorney general, which includes defending Georgia’s ban on same-sex marriage and taking part in a legal challenge to U.S. Department of Education orders on bathrooms for transgender students. But faculty representatives have stayed away from those social issues and focused on a closed search process.

In May, a letter signed by Faculty Senate President Humayun Zafar and Andrew Pieper, president of the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors, focused on the search process they hoped to see in the wake of the retirement of former Kennesaw State President Daniel Papp. It suggested a search committee with 17 members.

“The faculty at KSU understand the final selection of a new president is the responsibility and prerogative of the [Board of Regents],” said the letter, dated May 23. “However, our experience, and the experience of universities around the country, suggests a process that incorporates voices of faculty, staff, students and community members will result in a more legitimate, and likely more successful, outcome.”

Pieper followed with another letter in September that objected to a lack of the requested faculty, staff, student and community input as speculation grew that Olens was bound for the presidency. It said that Olens was “certainly a competent individual of high integrity” but called reports of his presidential appointment disturbing for several reasons.

“First, such an appointment would circumvent the norms of larger institutions of higher education,” said the letter, dated Sept. 8. “Such an appointment would apparently be made without any formal input from faculty, staff, students or trustees of KSU. Second, such an appointment would seemingly import to Georgia a troubling trend of making institutions of higher education subject to political machination, which as our letter this summer discussed, has had negative ramifications at virtually all institutions where it has occurred.”

Still, System Chancellor Huckaby said in an open letter on Monday that he had been planning a national search -- until he talked to Olens. When it was announced that regents would vote on Olens's candidacy, it was because the board's executive and compensation committee had recommended he be considered by the full board.

Pieper on Wednesday maintained that his concern was the search process, not the man chosen.

“The AAUP at KSU is certainly disappointed that a national search wasn’t conducted,” he said in an email. “Such a search would have given all sides the opportunity to learn more about each other. However, if Mr. Olens is ultimately approved, our organization will certainly work with him to aid his transition to higher ed, and to move forward to enhance the reputation of Kennesaw State University.”

West Florida faculty members protested their search process as well -- with some success. Faculty members were unhappy that professors made up only a quarter of the presidential search committee, said Theodore Fox, a professor of biology and Faculty Senate president.

West Florida’s Faculty Senate voted to oppose the politician Gaetz for president just days after he was named as one of four finalists in early September. They thought it made sense to go with an established candidate as West Florida, which has traditionally thought of itself as a teaching institution, works to solidify its status in a state that has emphasized research universities.

The idea of a politician as West Florida's president has been discussed before. Fox said the situation wasn't right at the university.

"We've had those discussions quite a bit," Fox said. "There are some advantages to bringing in a politician or someone from the outside -- it could be a businessperson. But when you're doing that, what's really going to make them effective in the position is if you're charting a somewhat new course for the university."

Other groups including student groups and the Florida State League of Women Voters also opposed Gaetz’s candidacy. Board of Trustees Chairman Lewis Bear decried interference in the presidential selection process after the board voted for Saunders, saying phone calls from the state capitol in Tallahassee hurt Gaetz’s prospects. Bear was one of four trustees who voted for Gaetz.

Politico reported that Florida Governor Rick Scott intervened to block Gaetz from the job. But faculty members attributed the decision to the strength of the candidate pool.

R. Daniel Pace is a professor of finance who is the president of the United Faculty of Florida’s chapter at West Florida. He said Gaetz would likely have become president if Saunders had not been a candidate.

“A lot of people thought the fix was in,” Pace said. “But I have to say that I think the most important reason why he did not become a successful candidate was how strong the other people were. In particular, the provost, Martha Saunders, had already built ties with the faculty. She’s trusted, well liked and had just such far superior direct experience in running not only universities, but our university.”

The Kennesaw State and West Florida situations detail how faculty members can feel frozen out of a search process if it is not transparent. They also show how powerless today’s faculty members can feel when that happens.

“A generation ago the faculty had more power to push back against candidates that they felt were not acceptable for the presidency,” said Thomas L. Harnisch, director of state relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “That power has eroded over the past several decades.”

Still, experts agreed that it’s important search processes are based on candidates’ merit. Institutions can find themselves in trouble if faculty members and outsiders think they see cronyism installing political insiders in a cushy role.

Such a situation is bad for the institution and the president, said Reilly, the Wisconsin president emeritus.

“It’s not healthy,” Reilly said. “If that’s the message that gets sent, it bollixes up everything, and you put the person in a very tough starting gate.”

One president who stepped into such a situation was John Thrasher, a Republican state senator and former Speaker of the House who was chosen to become Florida State University's president in September 2014. Faculty members and students opposed the move, citing Thrasher’s background and inexperience.

Florida State faculty members continue to watch for any political influences seeping into the university because of the move, said Matthew Lata, a professor of music and president of the United Faculty of Florida’s Florida State chapter. Those influences could include donations with strings attached and political philosophies seeping into the university.

But Thrasher has had largely good relations with faculty members, Lata said. Contract negotiations have been successful, and the president has stood with instructors on issues such as opposing guns on campus, Lata said.

“I think President Thrasher came in feeling that he had something to prove,” Lata said. “He tried very hard to build bridges with the faculty and, by and large, I think that has succeeded.”

Read more by

Back to Top