Do former top government officials make good college presidents? It depends
- Leocadia Zak, who served as director of the U.S. Trade and Development Agency under President Obama, became the latest former presidential appointee to become college president, with the announcement that she will assume the reins at Agnes Scott College in Georgia.
- She joins former health and human services secretary and Office of Management and Budget director Sylvia Mathews Burwell, who became president of American University last year; former acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank, who is serving as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin–Madison; and former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, now president of the University of California System, among other Obama appointees who are now college presidents, Inside Higher Ed reports.
- Government service experience suggests leadership qualities in candidates boards find attractive. And, as leaders continue to look outside of the usual churn of recycled president candidates to attract individuals from new places, those who have held high ranks in government are becoming a more appealing option.
The Obama administration was not the first to send its officials to the college presidency, and it will not be the last. Increasingly, boards are looking to business, government and even medicine for individuals who might bring fresh perspectives to campus and invigorate the broken higher ed business model. In some cases, this has worked out. Former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, for example, seems to be breathing new life into Purdue University and shaking up the industry as a whole. In other cases, like in the case of former Georgia Attorney General and Kennesaw State University President Sam Olens, it has not. Even Napolitano's tenure at the University of California, still ongoing, has been mired in controversy.
Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. As is the case with everything, each decision made for the campus has to first take into account fit and campus culture. For some institutions, looking to other non-traditional but still academic places, like the CIO's office, may be exactly what the campus needs to find an approach which better leverages data and strategy to help move the institution forward. For some, looking inward to student affairs will help bring the expertise to keep students settled in turbulent times.
For others, looking to someone who has had great business success will help the institution meet high fundraising goals. But in any case, it should be clear that institutions of higher education are unlike any other business in any other industry, and attention to those nuances which make each institution different is critical to the success of any leader. Conducting a full, transparent search for new leadership will allow the needs of multiple campus stakeholders to be voiced and considered to help avoid controversy down the line.
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