6 higher ed presidents to watch in 2016

For better or worse, a mix of success, protests, and scandals are garnering attention for these leaders

Higher ed donations may have hit record highs in recent years, but that doesn't necessarily mean smooth sailing for institutions. Despite the large amount of gifts, institutions are actually seeing fewer donations of $1 million or more — and worse still, state and federal funding is still down, leaving public colleges largely dependent upon tuition dollars. Factor in the facelift higher ed is getting from technology, shifts in demographics and their impact on enrollment, competition from coding bootcamps and other alternative credentialing providers, and a host of other issues, and the presidents sailing these proverbial ships are facing plenty of rough seas.

On a more micro level, 2015 saw a number of institutions face challenges with protests related to racial tensions on campus, financial concerns, and an increasing number of new leaders plucked from non-academic backgrounds. Regardless of what they're facing at their particular institutions, you'll want to keep an eye on these eight higher ed presidents through 2016.

Margaret Spellings - University of North Carolina System

The selection of Margaret Spellings, a former U.S. Secretary of Education during the George W. Bush administration, was contentious from the moment her name leaked as a finalist. There were concerns among members of the state's board of governors and in its legislature that the 11-member search committee would act against an at-the-time-unsigned law requiring at least three finalists — and sure enough, the decision was reportedly made in an emergency meeting prior to the law's signing. 

Naturally, that process left a bad taste in many stakeholders' mouths at a time where many are concerned about the heavy-handed role politics is playing in UNC's future. The system's progressive and well-liked former president, Thomas W. Ross, was pushed out as a Republican-led committee also acted to shut down research centers focused on the environment, voter engagement, and poverty. With Spellings already facing protests from faculty and students, who say the board’s practice of meeting during breaks and exam periods excludes them from participating — and the expectation that some legislators might also become more vocal in the backlash — will she be able to attain enough support in the office to be effective?

J. Bruce Harreld - University of Iowa

In a situation similar to that of Spellings, business consultant and former corporate executive J. Bruce Harreld was selected in September by the Iowa Board of Regents — though in his case, he had competition in the form of three candidates with traditional academic backgrounds. With his primary academic experience being as a business lecturer, faculty concerns saw the hire as a move toward a more profit-oriented, corporate-style leadership for the institution. Emails between regents, revealing that Harreld had been courted by them before his selection as a finalist, sewed further distrust. 

That distrust has played out in votes of no confidence and censureship, with Iowa State University and Northern Iowa University offering support for the former. Still, Harreld, who notably turned down tenure, has his share of supporters, including administrators who believe his background will make him more supportive to their causes. Whether his detractors come around over the next year will be worth watching if trustees continue turning to outsiders in higher ed leadership decisions.

James Ramsey - University of Lousville

Perhaps the longest-running president on this list, James Ramsey has led the University of Louisville since 2002 and immediately began working to raise the school to a "premier, nationally recognized, metropolitan research institution." To that effect, he is credited with boosting the quality of freshman classes, graduation rates, research, diversity, and fundraising.

But he's also faced a number of scandals and controversies in recent years.

A high-profile athletic scandal involving a tell-all book by a madam who allegedly provided escorts and strippers to the university's basketball team has been making headlines since the fall. December brought news of an FBI investigation into accusations that Executive Vice President for Health Affairs David Dunn, former Associate Vice President Dr. Russell Bessette, and CIO Priscilla Hancock misused federal grant money. As if those two issues weren't big enough, Ramsey drew outrage over perceived racial insensitivity this past Halloween, when he and members of his senior staff posed in sombreros, fake mustaches, and ponchos. Add to that a sour taste in the mouths of some community members over his $687,899 salary (just over $1.1 million including bonuses and other compensation), and you can see how Ramsey's got a bit of a mess on his hands.

How all of this falls back on, and impacts the legacy of, Ramsey — who also recently reported to trustees that 20 of the 23 goals in his 2020 strategic plan had been reached — could provide a guide for other administrators, for better or worse.

John Williams - Muhlenberg College

Relatively new to the presidency at Muhlenberg College, John Williams took the reins of his institution July 1. He's also one of only 13 black presidents at America's top 200 higher ed institutions.

Despite this still being the early days of his tenure, he's already made quite an impact at Muhlenberg. According to Black Enterprise, he held a Speak Out Listen In forum one day after reading racial and mysogynistic remarks made by students on Yik Yak in the wake of campus unrest over racial tensions at schools like the University of Missouri. The session reportedly drew 900 students and lasted until 1 A.M., with a focus not on airing grievances but on encouraging understanding and mutual respect.

Additionally, he fits into the trend of higher ed leaders being selected from outside of academia. Williams' career includes a stint with Bain & Co., executive positions at American Express, and the launching of Softbridge Microsystems, in addition to serving as an expert-in-residence at Harvard's Innovation Lab.

As the leader of a small liberal arts college — a category of school that has seen its fair share of financial strain and pressure to prove its worth in recent years — the Harvard JD and MBA will face a challenge he seems thus far well-suited to tackle.

Nancy Gray - Hollins University

With a current strategic plan titled "Connecting Liberal Arts Education and Experience to Achieve Results," Hollins University President Nancy Gray ("P. Gray" to students) is well aware of the pressure liberal arts colleges face over their value proposition. Those pressures are further compounded when you factor in that she's also the head of a women's college in a time where a fair number have faced closure or gone co-ed.

But compared to peers, like nearby struggling Sweet Briar College, Hollins is actually doing pretty well. Under Gray's leadership since 2004, the institution's endowment has risen $72 million to $171 million, and, according to The Roanoke Times, it has paid off its debts. Comparatively, Sweet Briar's endowment is $68 million, and Mary Baldwin College — the only other women's college in Virginia — is at $37 million. The paper also reports that Gray's success is credited largely to her work with her board of trustees and successful marketing tactics for reaching out to prospective students. It's an example administrators at other women's institutions could learn from.

Timothy Killeen - University of Illinois

Taking office in May, Timothy Killeen immediately faced a summer of scandal at the University of Illinois. First there was the ouster of Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Phyllis Wise, whose tenure included a number of controversies like the potentially illegal firing of Steven Salaita, over an email scandal. Pressure on trustees against Wise came from sources including Gov. Bruce Rauner following her initial attempt to resign with a $400,000 bonus package, and the issue also led to provost Ilesanmi Adesida's exit. The situation ultimately led to the loss of a potential $250,000 retention bonus for Killeen if he stuck around for more than five years, as well as a housing stipend for University of Illinois-Chicago Chancellor Michael Amiridis.

The summer also saw athletic scandals over the alleged mishandling of a female soccer player's concussion and the firing of football coach Tim Beckman for reportedly telling players to keep playing instead of seeking treatment for injuries. But these scandals are said to be likely to fade with time and not impact Killeen's goal of protecting the institution's reputation, especially if efforts to remedy the issues are made visible enough for the public.

The true test before Killeen is the state's ongoing impasse over a budget that should have been passed by July 1. A total of 12 universities in the state are impacted by the lack of a compromise between Rauner and the state's legislature, and proposals from Rauner would see several institutions face cuts of at least 30%. (The University of Illinois would see 31.3% less funding.) With a similar situation playing out in Pennsylvania and predictions that the blockage could last years, how Killeen guides his state's flagship university is sure to influence other leaders who find themselves in equally unenviable situations.

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