Can non-academics make good university leaders?


The job of university president was, until recently, a gig reserved almost entirely for the seasoned professor battle-hardened by decades in academia.

Today’s US university and college leaders, however, are increasingly a different breed: among their ranks you’ll now find a former Homeland Security chief, a four-star admiral, a sprinkling of retired congressmen and senators and a legion of former lawyers, chief executive officers and blue-chip executives. The UK has gone less far down this road, but its vice-chancellors include former government officials and BBC executives, as well as an ex-banker and a former higher education minister.

The ascent of these “non-traditional” leaders in higher education is, however, controversial for many, with traditionalists dismayed by what they see as a hostile takeover of the largest office on campus.

How do I know this? I entered higher education as a non-conventional leader and am the dean of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.

Before Darden, I was a senior partner at management consulting firm McKinsey in Brussels for 26 years. During my final years there, I completed a doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania, studying the emergence of non-traditional presidents at US liberal arts colleges. What I found is that the traditional president coming up from the ranks of tenure-track faculty is still the norm by a 2:1 margin. Yet signs of a shift are evident; one-third of US liberal arts college presidents today are non-traditional, up from less than 10 per cent just a few decades ago.

Faculties have traditionally chosen to be led by one of their own because they want someone who understands academia’s culture and norms, and a person who views the pursuit of knowledge as a primary objective in policy decisions. Disparate trends, however, are converging to change this. One of the biggest drivers is a scarcity of traditional candidates. Tenured and tenure-track faculty accounted for just over one-third of all liberal arts faculty in 2009, compared with 78 per cent in 1969. Scholars holding the classic credentials to lead also have a diminished appetite for the top job. The easiest explanation for this declining interest in a once-coveted position is that the job has changed. Presidents have always had to lead the faculty and preside over administrative staff, but they are now increasingly expected to take on external-facing duties, such as fundraising, interacting with the community, managing crises and serving as a civic leader. Those duties have thoroughly crowded out other aspects of the job and all of them have become more challenging. Fundraising goals are daunting. Travel demands are punishing. Stakeholder pressures – amplified and enabled by social media – create a 24/7 pressure cooker in which legions of stakeholders can act like activist investors.

The business model of higher education is also far more challenging than it used to be. Most US colleges are having to cope with far higher levels of tuition-fee discounts, brutal cutbacks in state or grant funding and increased competition for students from public, international and technology-enabled universities. Beyond making the job of a president less fun, these changes make it far less secure and average tenures have dropped. All of this might be manageable if not for one additional problem: the changes to the job’s content mean that it no longer necessarily plays to the strengths of the scholar. Many large research universities today, for example, have hospital systems that represent as much as half of their revenue and employment. Overwhelmingly, the modern president’s work involves duties for which most professors are neither trained nor prepared.

As such, nervous boards recognise that search professionals can bring with them best practices that can save them from mistakes. This creates greater mobility for candidates and opens the non-traditional option for many search committees that wouldn’t have encountered those unconventional candidates before.

Universities need to be managed like the large, complex organisations that they are. However, they are not just another form of business: they are mainly not-for-profit, mission-driven institutions. For the non-traditional candidate, having no understanding of or sensitivity to the culture, norms and scholarly processes of higher education is not helpful. Conversely, having no business, managerial or fundraising experience is not helpful to a traditional candidate.

So, do you need a non-traditional or a traditional leader? That is no longer the right question. The right question is, instead: “What are the leadership challenges that need to be solved, and who has the right mix of abilities to do it?” Traditional leaders with managerial experience will still be attractive candidates, but those from outside academia may prevail if they can show that they are strong on strategy, fundraising, character, energy, management, community relations and team-building.

Deliver on these and even the most sceptical of scholars might soon believe that business leaders have every business being on campus.

Author Bio: Scott Beardsley is dean of the University of Virginia Darden School of Business and author of the book Higher Calling: The Rise of Nontraditional Leaders in Academia.