Defending Nontraditional Presidents

New book examines which liberal arts colleges are hiring nontraditional presidents (money and prestige make it less likely) and argues that boards should be asking a different question than "traditional or nontraditional?"

August 30, 2017
 

Much has been written and said about colleges and universities hiring more presidents with so-called nontraditional backgrounds -- those who did not rise from faculty member to dean, provost and, ultimately, president.

But at least one person who has been a nontraditional presidential candidate thinks the discussion about hiring a traditional president or a nontraditional president is the wrong one to have.

That person, Scott C. Beardsley, has been the dean of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business since 2015. Previously, he was a senior partner at the global consulting firm McKinsey & Co. He was with McKinsey for 26 years before moving into higher education, even holding a position as an elected member on McKinsey’s global board of directors from 2011 to 2014.

Toward the end of his time at McKinsey, Beardsley decided to apply for the presidency of Dartmouth College in 2012. During the process, he received two pieces of feedback on his credentials: he didn’t have a doctorate, and he was a nontraditional candidate. (It is worth noting that Dartmouth hired a controversial nontraditional president in 1981. The late David T. McLaughlin left his role at the top of the Toro Company to lead the college, where he was a trustee, and was met with resistance from faculty members and students who were distrustful of his lack of experience as an academic. McLaughlin resigned in 1987 but has been credited with building the college and its endowment.) It was the first time Beardsley had heard the term nontraditional, and the feedback would set him on a path that would eventually lead him to earn his doctorate and study nontraditional presidents.

Now Beardsley has written a book about his experience and his outlook, Higher Calling: The Rise of Nontraditional Leaders in Academia (University of Virginia Press). In the book, which is due out in September, Beardsley covers his research into which types of institutions are hiring nontraditional presidents, his research into why colleges hire nontraditional presidents and why he believes debates about hiring traditional or nontraditional presidents are the wrong discussions to have.

Debating traditional versus nontraditional presidents distracts from more important questions and gets in the way of hiring the best fit for specific situations, Beardsley writes. He finds the distinction between the two types of leaders ill-defined, especially because many college and university presidents can already be categorized as nontraditional.

In an interview this week, Beardsley used his own experience to illustrate his point. When he was a candidate for the Darden deanship, he was considered a nontraditional candidate because he never worked directly for a college or university. But now, if he were to apply for a presidency, some would consider him a traditional candidate because he is a dean and teaches classes.

"They argue" about nontraditional presidents, Beardsley said. “I’m still the same person. I find it to be a not-very-helpful discussion.”

Of course, some academics would not consider transitioning from McKinsey to the dean of a business school enough to make someone a traditional leader. Regardless, the discussion about traditional and nontraditional candidates plays out at colleges and universities throughout the country. Many expect it to take place even more so in the future. So Beardsley’s research into what types of institutions have been hiring nontraditional presidents and why is timely.

Who Hires Nontraditional Presidents?

Before analyzing traditional and nontraditional presidencies, Beardsley sets out to define the term nontraditional. About 30 years ago, a traditional president was often considered to have moved up through the tenured faculty ranks to department chair to dean before becoming a provost and ultimately, president. Someone who did not follow that path was considered a nontraditional president.

Today, some hold on to those definitions. But they can be broadened in order to define today’s traditional presidents as those who spent time as tenured or tenure-track faculty members at one time, Beardsley writes. For his research, he defined a traditional president as someone who climbed up through the full-time tenured-faculty track at some point in his or her career, regardless of whether or not he or she actually gained tenure. Any president not fitting that definition he categorizes as nontraditional.

Beardsley’s argument for his definition is that higher education’s greatest leadership tradition is presidents versed in scholarship -- not presidents versed in institutional or administrative mechanisms.

Beardsley analyzed 248 stand-alone liberal arts colleges as categorized by U.S. News & World Report. He looked at data from 2014, finding that a third of liberal arts college presidents were nontraditional. That’s actually down about three percentage points from the past cohort of presidents, which he also evaluated, but it still represents significant growth over the last several decades.

Rankings matter when it comes to presidential backgrounds, Beardsley finds. Highly ranked liberal arts colleges were less likely to have a nontraditional president than lower-ranked ones. Just 16 percent of the top 50 liberal arts institutions had nontraditional presidents in 2014. Among the next 50 highest-ranked colleges, 26 percent had nontraditional presidents. That’s a much lower percentage than was recorded at lower-ranked institutions -- 38 percent of those ranked 101-150 had nontraditional presidents, and 44 percent of the remaining 98 lowest-ranked institutions had nontraditional presidents.

This relationship could be because of tradition, inertia or risk avoidance, Beardsley writes. He points out that highly ranked institutions might be seen as doing something right in their hiring and therefore do not need the perceived change agent a nontraditional president would represent. They also might have more powerful faculty, or they might simply have their first pick of candidates, enabling them to hire the most attractive traditional talent.

Beardsley goes on to break down measures that go into U.S. News & World Report rankings: endowment, graduation rate and selectivity. He finds a negative relationship between wealth and the presence of a nontraditional president, meaning the wealthier an institution, the less likely it was to have a nontraditional president.

Institutions with the smallest endowments per student -- those with $26,300 per student or less -- were most likely to have nontraditional presidents in 2014, with 41.4 percent of such institutions having nontraditional presidents. In the next tier -- institutions with $27,700 per student to $60,100 per student -- 43.1 percent had nontraditional presidents.

The percentage of institutions with nontraditional presidents fell sharply above that, to just 25.4 percent among those with endowment assets of $60,200 to $133,900 per student and 22 percent among those with $135,500 or more per student.

The tendency was even more pronounced when institutions were sorted by total endowment instead of endowment per student, Beardsley finds.

“There appears to be something of a breakpoint whereby liberal arts colleges beyond a certain level of endowment -- in the vicinity of $240 million -- hew much more strongly to the traditional model,” he writes.

Other findings round out the picture of nontraditional presidents being hired in larger numbers by colleges and universities that are small in size, low in resources and struggling for market position.

“You have traditional and you have nontraditional presidents at all types of universities, whether they’re high-ranked or low-ranked,” Beardsley said. “It’s just that the proportion tended to indicate that smaller or lower-ranked institutions had a greater probability today of having nontraditional leaders.”

Take enrollment. The smallest institutions analyzed, those with between 93 and 983 full-time equivalent students, had nontraditional presidents 38.9 percent of the time. Those with 989 to 1,646 full-time equivalents had nontraditional presidents 37.7 percent of the time.

On the other hand, institutions with 1,647 to 2,316 full-time equivalents had nontraditional presidents 24.6 percent of the time. The largest, those with 2,346 full-time equivalents to 7,445, had nontraditional presidents 32.3 percent of the time.

Colleges with fewer full-paying students tended to have more nontraditional presidents than those with more full-paying students. Those with lower graduation rates tended to have more nontraditional presidents than those with higher graduation rates. Generally, less-selective colleges were more likely to have nontraditional presidents than the most-selective institutions.

Another interesting element Beardsley examines is religious affiliation. He finds that religiously affiliated liberal arts colleges were substantially more likely to have nontraditional presidents at the helm than those without any religious affiliation. Slightly more than 40 percent of religiously affiliated institutions had nontraditional presidents, compared to just 27.1 percent of institutions with no religious affiliation. Beardsley points out that institutions emphasizing religion might view a traditional president as someone who has credentials in a particular faith, rather than a long scholarly record.

Many religious institutions require or prefer candidates to share the faith of the institution. That could very well make some other criteria, such as academic experience, secondary.

Characteristics of Nontraditional Presidents

Beardsley also categorized liberal arts college presidents based on their predecessors. He found nontraditional presidents were more likely to follow traditional predecessors than they were to follow nontraditional predecessors. Many institutions are alternating between traditional and nontraditional presidents, he writes.

Nontraditional presidents tended to have longer tenures than traditional presidents. The median tenure for a nontraditional president was 6.9 years in 2014. For a traditional president, it was only 3.9 years.

Nontraditional presidents were less likely to be women than men. Beardsley finds the ratio of traditional to nontraditional presidents is 4.6:1 for women. It is 2.4:1 for men.

Boards of trustees and search committees who are evaluating candidates clearly still have comfort zones, Beardsley writes. It appears a candidate’s nontraditional features often need to be tempered by traditional features.

College presidents traditionally have been white men. That means the argument between hiring a traditional president versus a nontraditional president can lead to entire pools of talented candidates not getting the job.

“One thing I think is important to underline is the potential for bias,” Beardsley said. “Really, the challenge for higher education is finding great leaders no matter where they came from.”

The Future of Nontraditional Presidents

Beardsley believes nontraditional presidents will continue to rise in number. Executive search consultants told him that they see institutions hiring presidents when they desire change and are willing to take risks. Changes to the conditions under which liberal arts institutions operate, including economic challenges, will increasingly demand leadership capabilities that are hard to develop in academic careers, he argues. The same can be said for other types of colleges and universities.

At the same time, shrinking numbers of tenured faculty are narrowing the talent pipeline for traditional presidents. And although search consultants and committees consider provosts attractive candidates, many provosts aren’t interested in becoming presidents, Beardsley said. Search committees are having to look at as broad a range of leaders as they can find.

Think about the racial tensions that led to Tim Wolfe resigning from the University of Missouri in 2015, for example. The college presidency is a difficult position to hold, one filled with unexpected conflict. Many faculty members and provosts are saying they do not want to become president.

Still, some other measures actually show a recent decline in presidents hired from outside of higher education. When it was released earlier this year, the American Council on Education’s American College President Study found the share of presidents coming from outside of higher education dropped to 15 percent in 2016, down from 20 percent in 2011.

But the ACE study went on to show more nuance. Candidates with some higher ed experience are valued, it found. Yet candidates do not have to have spent their entire careers at colleges and universities. The ACE study also found that the percentage of presidents who had ever worked outside of higher ed increased. It jumped to 58 percent in 2016, up from 47.8 percent in 2011.

Of course, many still hew to the belief that a president with a traditional background is of the utmost importance. J. Bruce Harreld, a former IBM and Boston Market executive, found himself the target of protests on his first day in 2015 as students and faculty members pushed back on his qualifications, which they found lacking. Last year, faculty members at the University of West Florida and Kennesaw State University in Georgia pushed back on search processes that made Republican politicians candidates for their institutions’ presidencies. (West Florida ultimately chose its provost at the time, Martha Saunders, over State Sen. Don Gaetz. But former Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens was named president of Kennesaw State.)

There are also high-profile examples of presidents who are from nontraditional backgrounds failing to make the transition successfully. Look no further than the oft-cited example of Simon Newman, who resigned from Mount St. Mary’s University in 2016 after less than a year in office. Newman, whose background was in business and private equity, infamously set off a firestorm by likening struggling freshmen to bunnies needing to be drowned or to have a Glock put to their heads. He also ran afoul with faculty.

Beardsley advises nontraditional candidates who want to be college presidents to try to narrow the gap between their experience and the world of higher ed. He recommends teaching as adjunct professors. He also points out that most college presidents have terminal degrees, whether they be Ph.D.s, J.D.s or another degree. Although he stops short of saying nontraditional candidates must have terminal degrees to have a chance at being hired, he writes that his own experience earning a doctorate in higher education management at the University of Pennsylvania was indispensable.

“First of all, I do think it gives anyone an appreciation for the level of research required to be a faculty member on the tenure track,” he said. “I do believe that I also just learned a lot. The topic that I studied made me more knowledgeable about higher education, and I learned a lot from my classmates.”

Beardsley also notes in his book that deans are increasingly being hired as presidents -- a trend that other experts have noted. Given that trend, and the fact that he started his journey into higher ed administration by seeking a presidency, it’s worth asking the 54-year-old business school dean if he ultimately wants to become a president himself.

He maintained that he is happy where he is at the University of Virginia. He isn’t looking for a new position, but he also said he wouldn’t necessarily turn down a college presidency if the right one came along.

“I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it,” he said. “Being a dean or being a college president --there are some similarities. But obviously, the magnitude can be quite different.”

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