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Colleges look further afield for leaders

University of North Carolina President Erskine Bowles, former White House chief of staff, is one of a growing number of college leaders who come from non-academic backgrounds.Bob Jordan / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The outgoing president of Randolph-Macon College in Virginia, Roger Martin is an Oxford-trained church historian. His successor is a career fund-raiser who brought in about $3 billion for his last two employers.

The appointment last week of Robert Lindgren to lead the small, 175-year-old liberal arts college about 15 miles north of Richmond, Va., is the latest example of a trend in higher education: Schools are looking for more than a scholar these days when they hire a president.

Lindgren fully grasps Randolph-Macon’s academic mission, said search committee chair Harold Starke. But, he added, “fund-raising was certainly high on the list (of criteria), as it would be for any college of any size today.”

For years, college presidents — including four of the first six at Randolph-Macon — were often clergymen. Gradually, the pipeline shifted to scholars in such fields as classics and English and, more recently, to scientists. But almost always, candidates were teachers and deans promoted through the academic ranks.

Fund-raising, business backgrounds valued
Now as the complexity of running a college and the pressures of fund-raising have intensified, schools have become less picky about their presidents’ scholarly credentials. Increasingly, they are looking to candidates from the business and fund-raising worlds — prompting concern from some faculty about priorities.

In a Chronicle of Higher Education survey of nearly 1,400 four-year college presidents that was released this week, 22 percent described their previous job as nonacademic university vice president or a similar post.

A broader American Council on Education survey found 30 percent of college presidents in 2001 had never held a faculty position, up from 25 percent in 1986. About 15 percent came from outside academia, up from under 9 percent in 1998. Those numbers have likely increased since.

Florida Southern, Albright and Muhlenberg are among the colleges that recently appointed presidents whose previous job was fund-raising at another school, while the University of Kentucky and others have tapped business executives.

Each of those new presidents has a doctoral degree, but some public universities eager to attract more state funding have proven willing to sacrifice the doctoral credential for political connections. The University of North Carolina recently tapped former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, while Radford University hired the head of the Virginia Lottery. In Colorado, the community college system and two of its campuses are led by former members of Gov. Bill Owens’ Cabinet, only one of whom has a doctorate.

The reason is clear: The job of college president is increasingly a financial one.

College success viewed through the budget
The Chronicle survey found 53 percent of presidents worked on fund-raising every day, more than any other activity. Asked how they defined success, the most common reply was “having a balanced budget,” beating out “excellent quality of educational programs.”

A president’s “legacy is almost always cited in terms of how many buildings were built, how much the endowment has grown,” said Rita Bornstein, a former president of Rollins College in Florida, who previously headed development at the University of Miami.

Against that backdrop, college trustees reason that it’s foolish to limit the applicant pool to those who have mastered the kind of narrowly focused scholarly work required to earn a doctorate and ascend the academic ladder.

Adjusting to scholarly culture
Faculty, for their part, don’t want to work for poor, badly managed institutions. But some worry about the new presidents’ commitment to the unique culture of academic life — notably professors’ freedom to teach and research topics that may be neither popular nor profitable.

With outsiders, “the burden of proof is always on the candidate to prove they can adjust to the culture and protect academic freedom,” said Roger Bowen, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors.

Bornstein, who has written a book about how college presidents can build “legitimacy,” says she faced skepticism among some Rollins faculty about her fund-raising background (she also has a doctorate in education and had taught).

But, she says, good leaders can make it work. And even Bowen acknowledges some presidents with thinner academic backgrounds have thrived, while many from traditional academic routes have flopped.

Earning trust from academics
Lindgren, who has been Johns Hopkins University’s chief fund-raiser, has a law degree from the University of Florida and a master’s in management from Oxford but has never taught his own class. He knows he will have to earn trust but believes development work can be good training for a president because it offers exposure to every aspect of a college.

Also, “development officers wind up spending a lot of time with presidents,” said Lindgren, who has worked under seven of them at Florida and Hopkins. “You learn a lot about the business, traveling around, all those airplane rides and car rides. You’re talking — a lot of times — about what’s on the president’s mind.”

Political science professor Lauren Bell said Lindgren persuaded her and the two other Randolph-Macon faculty on the search committee that he was the best of the 100 candidates. When she polled faculty before the search, some were wary of picking a non-scholar. But others wanted someone who could boost the college’s $100 million endowment.

“There are some people who said, ‘There are no problems that we have here that can’t be solved with lots of money. So get us somebody who can get us lots of money.”’