The Changing College Presidency

September 05, 2018


nontraditional college presidents



New research shows a shift in leadership, with more non-academic, nontraditional college presidents leading higher education institutions.


As the traditional path to the presidency evolves, more colleges and universities are looking outside of academia for their next leader. New research from three scholars at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) discovered a shift in the traditional pathways to the presidency—revealing public colleges and universities are being led by more non-academics than ever before.


While an academic background is the traditional stepping stone to the presidency, the research found that 40 percent of current college presidents come from outside of academia, having never held a tenured or tenure-track-eligible position—an increase from 31 percent from just one year ago.


Not So Traditional Anymore

The research—led by VCU sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom and co-authors Sally S. Hunnicutt and Jennifer A. Johnson—looked at career histories of 215 college and university presidents and found that just over half (54%) began their careers from a more traditional tenure track. The remaining 46 percent of university presidents began their careers in something other than a traditional tenure-track path, including nonacademic positions in corporate, military or government work, suggesting that nontraditional pathways to the presidency are now more common.


40% of current college presidents come from outside of academia, having never held a tenured or tenure-track-eligible position.


Scott C. Beardsley, dean of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and former senior partner at the global consulting firm McKinsey & Co., reported similar findings in his book, “Higher Call: The Rise of Nontraditional Leaders in Academia.” Beardsley found that among 248 liberal arts college presidents in 2014, one third came to the job from a path other than a tenured academic position, typically followed by a series of academic administrative jobs leading to provost, then to the presidency.


“Financialization” of Universities

The VCU researchers looked at wider nontraditional markers, concluding the evolving path to the presidency reflects the reality that “the academy is not and never was wholly an ‘ivory tower’ where the financial concerns of the institution are secondary.” The researchers also voiced concern that 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,” and toward a more revenue-based model in what they called the “financialization” of public universities.


While critics complain that public universities have become “for sale,” others believe institutions are resistant to needed change. Cottom believes the truth is somewhere in the middle. “We’re not totally up for sale,” she said. “We still exert a lot of influence over who can become a university leader—especially who can become a legitimate university president,” she said. “We’re not, it seems, resistant to external ideas about how the university should work. We do value what the market values.”


Who is More Likely to Hire a Nontraditional President?

Beardsley also conducted research into what types of schools are hiring nontraditional presidents and why colleges and universities hire them. He found higher-ranked institutions likely have access to a larger pool of traditional talent that may make them less likely to look outside of academia for a new leader. Similarly, nontraditional leaders often act as an agent of change, which may not appeal to well-established or larger institutions.


• Only 16% of the top 50 liberal arts colleges have nontraditional presidents, compared to 38% of institutions ranked between 101-150.


• About 38.9% of colleges with less than 983 full-time students have nontraditional presidents, compared to just 32.9% of schools with 2,346 to 7,455 full-time students.


The Future of Nontraditional Presidents

Beardsley believes nontraditional presidents will continue to increase in number for colleges and universities that are looking for change and are more willing to take risks. He also believes economic challenges will demand experience leading complex organizations that is hard to develop with an academic-only background. Add to that a shrinking pool of tenured faculty as well as a growing number of provosts uninterested in seeking a college presidency, further shrinking the traditional presidency pipeline.


The debate over traditional versus nontraditional may distract from more important questions surrounding potential presidential candidates and get in the way of hiring the best fit. Ultimately, Beardsley says the greatest challenge for institutions is to appoint great leaders “no matter where they come from.”



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