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Higher Education Leaders: Hiring and Firing Our Presidents

The EvoLLLution | Higher Education Leaders: Hiring and Firing Our Presidents
Generalizations about the professions best suited for university leadership roles are misguided, as examples of both can be found far and wide across higher education’s rich history.

In the United States we sometimes pick our presidents from unusual backgrounds. This holds true for filling vacancies in the White House as well as on a campus. Numerous recent articles have focused on the increased popularity of naming college and university presidents who come from CEO positions in business; that’s news but it is not entirely new.

Two of my favorite examples are legendary presidents who took office in the 1930s and served for several decades in the post-World War II era. The dynamic duo is Robert G. Sproul of the University of California and Herman B. Wells of Indiana University.

Robert G. Sproul was a Berkeley alumnus who worked as an accountant in nearby Oakland City Hall and then on campus in the budgeting office before serving as President of the University of California from 1930 to 1958. After World War II, he was sufficiently popular with California citizens that he gained prominence in both state and national Republican party politics. Meanwhile, at Indiana University the iconic figure was Herman B Wells. He was a young business professor who gained gratitude and support from state legislators and governors for having devised a thoughtful plan that saved the state’s banks during the Great Depression. He was named interim president of Indiana University in 1937, and then served as president from 1938 until 1962.

Neither Sproul nor Wells claimed to be great scholars. Each was, however, a thoughtful leader, an institution builder, and a loyal alum who loved both alma mater and their home state. And both Wells and Sproul were able to harness their devotion to a university with keen financial skills.

Such figures as Sproul and Wells were exceptional in their career paths. They also were exceptional university presidents. So, it’s unwise and unwieldy to try to draw too many lessons from their legacies. Then and now, most presidents bring some academic career experience to their leadership role. But there remain significant exceptions. Some recent articles suggest that non-traditional presidents drawn from the ranks of business CEOs are “staying longer” than their traditional counterparts at beleaguered state universities. At the same time, cases of presidential firings at Mount Saint Mary’s College in Maryland, the University of Missouri or at the University of Akron reinforce the warning that business leaders are not always the right fit for college presidencies. However, the disparate data are sufficiently new and limited to warrant compelling conclusions.

The transfer of talent from corporations to colleges is only part of the recent press coverage. Numerous feature stories focus on former governors who have in recent years become university presidents. Once again, that is interesting but not unprecedented. Preoccupation with the flow from business CEO or governor to campus president, however runs the risk of glossing over the really big change in college and university leadership.

Looking back over the past two decades, what I see as the biggest change in senior leadership of colleges and universities is the impressive representation and record of women as presidents at institutions whose leadership had been historically confined to white men. In the 21st century, for example, seven women have been presidents of universities within the eight-member Ivy League. Penn, Brown, Princeton, Harvard and Cornell are the five pioneering institutions. In two cases—Penn and Brown—women have been chosen to lead as presidents twice in a row. This is a dramatic and historic transformation in the search for talented academic leadership. And the Ivy League is just part of the story. Women in recent years are—or, have been—presidents of Amherst College, the University of Virginia, the University of Illinois, the University of California, Duke University, the University of North Carolina, the University of Michigan, and Syracuse. My failure to mention even more examples probably will elicit irate texts and letters—an off-handed testimony to my claim about the strength and extent of this great change.

Hiring college and university presidents from the ranks of business or former governors is neither inherently good nor bad. Whoever does fill the campus presidency today probably faces pronounced external pressures. Many presidents seem uncomfortable and unconvincing in trying to persuade governors and state legislators about supporting higher education. Major donors increasingly make gifts to a foundation rather than to a campus.

Few university presidents have brought coherence to big-time intercollegiate athletics programs as part of the educational mission. Nor do presidents today seem at ease or in touch with discontented student groups. Trustees provide presidents with fantastic salaries, powers and perks. The price for presidents, however, is that they face good questions about how the college or university is doing and where it is going. So, for college and university presidents today, it’s back to basics!