'Non-traditional' presidencies more common than data shows
- A new analysis of presidential pathways conducted by researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University, reports that only 54% of college presidents from a sample of 215 career profiles came from tenure or tenure-track positions prior to their hiring. That percentage means a higher rate of appointments than published in previous studies, which placed the rate of presidential appointees without high-level faculty experience between 18.8% and 33%, according to one independent study and another conducted by the American Council on Education, both published in 2017.
- Large doctoral universities, predictably, made up the largest contingent of presidents who had come from traditional academic paths; 65% of the presidencies examined in this study with tenure or tenure-track positions in their backgrounds came from these institutions. And while doctoral institutions also accounted for the highest percentage — 37% — of presidents who came from the nontraditional path, the researchers found "the proportion of corporate nodes is significantly higher at 28%."
- The researchers told Inside Higher Ed they worry 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,” moving instead towards more of a corporate model of higher education.
The ultimate role of a university president is to translate the culture and mission of an institution into revenue for the institution, typically in the areas of fundraising, public relations and outreach within its immediate community and throughout different industrial sectors. This is why so much pressure is placed on presidents for athletics, endowment returns and political lobbying efforts to be successful because they are all key drivers of enrollment, research capacity and alumni relations — elements which drive campus growth.
When the University of Texas floats its efforts to recruit former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, or when Paul Quinn College names career lawyer Michael Sorrell as president, trustees at both schools, regardless of their difference in size, station and mission are following the same idea: The next phase of their campus' expansion will be found in vision created outside of the campus. And the presidents who know how to communicate with faculty, make decisions on capital planning, budgeting and PR strategy to meld with the strengths of the campus are typically those who have been in other environments to see how parts of a corporation function together to create a stronger academic enterprise: a common theme in a recent column from former University of Puget Sound President Susan Resneck Pierce who offered insights for presidents facing bleak culture on their campuses.
Some boards subscribe to the notion that you can hire a strong provost for academics but visionary leadership can only come from outside. For some campuses, this works out well, but on others, there is an inherent distrust by faculty of leaders who come in without any knowledge of the academic experience, and many measure one's value in terms of publication and research. And with a proliferation of presidents coming in from the outside, it is easy to see how presidents don't see student affairs as a priority — despite the fact that being out of touch with student experiences and concerns is the surest way to find oneself in the middle of a controversy or submitting a letter of resignation.
- Inside Higher Ed By one measure, 'Nontraditional' presidents less rare
- Education Dive Finding hope in the bleak outlook of the college presidency
Follow Autumn A. Arnett on Twitter