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New research on pathways to the presidency is tweaking the traditional meaning of the term “traditional,” asking whether the country's public colleges and universities are being led by more nonacademics than we think.

The research, from three scholars at Virginia Commonwealth University, looks at career histories for 215 leaders, most of them at public land-grant universities.

The researchers suggest that the proportion of university presidents coming to the job from something other than the typical tenure-track faculty position is more common than previous research has indicated: in the sample, 40.5 percent of university presidents had never held a tenured or tenure-track-eligible position in academe -- a higher rate, for instance, than in a 2017 study that put the proportion of nontraditional presidents at just 33 percent. In that study, researcher Scott Beardsley found that among 248 liberal arts college presidents in 2014, one in three came to the job from a path other than a tenured academic position in their discipline, typically followed by a series of administrative jobs leading to provost, then to the presidency.

The new findings also stand in contrast to the most widely cited study of the college presidency, published every five years by the American Council on Education. In 2017 it found the share of presidents coming from outside higher education dropped to 15 percent in 2016. The percentage who had ever worked outside higher education rose from 47.8 percent in 2011 to 58 percent in 2016. But the percentage who had never been a faculty member fell from 30.4 percent to 18.8 percent.

The ACE study found that the most popular career pathway for new presidents continued to be through academic administration -- 42.7 percent of presidents said their most recent prior position was as a chief academic officer, provost, dean or other senior executive in academic affairs.

The new research, led by VCU sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom and under review for publication in the open-access SocArXiv, cast a wider net looking for nontraditional markers. Cottom and her co-authors -- VCU’s Sally S. Hunnicutt and Jennifer A. Johnson -- say the evolving path to the presidency reflects the reality that “the academy is not and never was wholly an ‘ivory tower’ where the financial concerns of the institution are secondary.”

They also worry that the new path to the presidency may reflect “the cultural shift away from the traditional core mission of the university as an altruistic public good,” toward a revenue-seeking enterprise -- what they term the “financialization” of U.S. public universities.

In an interview, Cottom said higher education has long debated the extent to which universities act more like corporations. “But we don’t have a whole lot of empirics about the extent to which that’s true, and ways for us to sort of index that.”

While faculty critics may complain that publicly funded universities have become “for sale” to corporate interests, others say universities are resistant to needed change. Cottom said the data show that the truth is somewhere in the middle.

“We’re not totally up for sale,” she said. "We still exert a lot of influence over who can become a university leader -- especially who can become a legitimate university president." Universities, she said, are also "not nearly as stodgy and closed off" as other critics would say. "We’re not, it seems, resistant to external ideas about how the university should work. We do value what the market values."

The study did not examine private nonprofit universities.

Cottom and her colleagues found that 46 percent of university presidents began their careers in something other than a tenure-track position and followed nontraditional paths, beginning their careers in administrative roles or in "nonacademic positions such as in a corporation, military or government," suggesting that “diverse career pathways for university presidents are common.”

Cottom and her colleagues also point out that most of the institutions they studied were doctoral universities that “maintain the status quo by hiring presidents whose backgrounds look similar to the current culture of the university. To the extent that professionalization to tenure-track faculty cultures predisposes one with beliefs and norms of academic leadership versus corporate leadership, these academic presidents are still the likely university president.”

Carl J. Strikwerda, president of Pennsylvania’s Elizabethtown College, called the findings “promising.”

“We should do more work on actual pathways on which people get to the president,” said Strikwerda, who wrote about paths to the presidency in an essay for Inside Higher Ed last year. “I think the categories ‘traditional’ and ‘nontraditional’ are not particularly helpful. We’ve got to be more subtle than that.”

He said much of the previous research on how people get to the presidency has focused simply on the person’s previous job.

“Most of us in academia don’t find that a particularly useful piece of information,” he said. “What’s more interesting is to look at clusters: Which institutions had a lot of people go through as maybe a dean or some other kind of administrator?”

He noted that as a history professor and associate dean at the University of Kansas from 1987 to 2004, he worked with “about six or eight people who are college presidents now -- we were all at Kansas at the same time.”

A more meaningful question than “What was your previous job?” is “What are the kinds of institutions, and especially even at a point in time, where those people actually got influenced enough to become a president?”

While most of his Kansas colleagues were tenure track, a few weren’t. Among the presidents of colleges near Elizabethtown, he said, several were “academically acculturated” in universities, but not necessarily tenure-track faculty. “That’s a very important subsector of potential presidents,” he said.

“The successful nontraditional presidents who come particularly to public institutions are ones who have the ability to understand the academic culture and actually still thrive in it,” he said, citing former U.S. defense secretary Robert Gates, at one time the president of Texas A&M University. Gates is now chancellor of the College of William & Mary.

“You have to be a very sharp, culturally sensitive individual to be successful,” Strikwerda said. “You can do it -- you just have to be sort of an amateur anthropologist: ‘How does this group work? What are the codes? How do I create change here?’ You can’t just take a lesson directly from one sector to another.”

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