College Chief: A Changing Role?
College presidents and chancellors are in a unique position. They are the chief executive of organizations employing as many as tens of thousands of people, but unlike a corporation of similar size, their stated goals traditionally transcend profit maximization. Several presidents’ webpages boast visions to “boldly go,” driving “student-centered,” “service-oriented” missions. Hiring statements often emphasize the new president’s expertise in shared governance and prioritization of student needs.
However, as a chief executive, it seems logical that a college president’s skills would be similar to those of a corporate CEO. Sixty-five percent of presidents reported their primary role as management of the institution’s budget and finances. Fundraising is the second most cited role. The UCLA Chancellor’s webpage describes his role as to “shape the vision and strategic plan for the campus, and grow and diversify revenue streams in support of the university’s mission.”
Other goals for university presidents, such as fiscal responsibility and transparency, reflect those which corporate executives strive for.
Some worried onlookers see these latter goals as the steps toward “financialization” of universities, where the original meaning of altruistic good is lost in favor of a revenue-based model. Concretely, they lament a growing trend of “non-traditional” presidents hailing from non-academic backgrounds. Others are more concerned about the lack of change in presidential demographics–specifically, the dominance in the field of white males. Data can help investigate the reasonableness of such concerns.
Since the 1980’s, the American Council on Education (ACE) has published a study providing many details about college presidents. We analyzed data from two years: 1998 and 2017. In 1998, on the demographic side, college presidents were 19% women, and 9% African American or Hispanic. In 2017, those percentages had changed to 30% and 12%, respectively. ACE also reports that 80% of college presidents hold Ph.D. or Ed.D. degrees.
As for past career, the ACE study identifies presidents by their immediately-prior profession.
In 1998, 7.8% of presidents’ last job had been outside of education. In 2017, that number had doubled to 15%. This is clearly an upward trend. However, the ACE study is limited in one regard: because it only stretches back to one employment prior, a lifelong financial executive who recently moved into education and is now in their second educational position would not qualify as “outside of higher education” by the ACE measure.
Research by the Virginia Commonwealth University bridges this gap, revealing that 40% of college presidents in 2018 had come from outside of academia, “having never held a tenured or tenure-track eligible position.” This includes those presidents whose last position was in educational administration.
To accompany this information, we have hand-compiled several lists of presidents of different groups of institutions. Instead of grouping by immediately prior profession like the ACE study, these tables group the president by their general career background. They also provide the highest academic degree attained by the individual.
The listed background for each president is the general field they occupied before they entered any position in education administration (provost, dean, chief academic officer, etc.). Those with background listed as education administration have devoted all or nearly all of their career to it.
TOP 15 PUBLIC UNIVERSITIES
|UCLA||Gene D. Block||PhD, Psychology||Science/Academia|
|UC Berkeley||Carol Christ||PhD, English||Academia|
|Univ. of Michigan||Mark Schlissel||MD/PhD, Physiological Chemistry||Medicine/Academia|
|Univ. of Virginia||James E. Ryan||JD||Law/Academia|
|Georgia Tech||Angel Cabrera||PhD, Cognitive Psychology||Academia|
|UNC Chapel Hill||Kevin Guskiewicz||PhD||Academia|
|UCSB||Henry Yang||PhD, Structural Engineering||Academia|
|Univ. of Florida||W. Kent Fuchs||PhD, Philosophy||Science/Academia|
|UC Irvine||Howard Gillman||PhD, Political Science||Academia|
|UCSD||Pradeep Khosla||PhD, Electrical Engineering||Academia|
|UC Davis||Gary May||PhD, Electrical Engineering||Academia|
|College of William/Mary||Katherine Rowe||PhD, English/American Literature||Academia|
|Univ. of Wisconsin||Rebecca M. Blank||PhD||Government|
|Univ. of Illinois||Timothy Killeen||PhD, Atomic/Molecular Physics||Science/Academia|
|Univ. of Texas||Gregory Fenves||PhD, Structural Engineering||Engineering/Academia|
TOP 10 LIBERAL ARTS COLLEGES
|Williams College||Maud Mandel||PhD, Modern Jewish History||Academia|
|Amherst College||Carolyn Martin||PhD, German Literature||Academia|
|Swarthmore College||Valerie Smith||PhD||Academia|
|Wellesley College||Paula Johnson||MD||Medicine|
|Pomona College||G. Gabrielle Starr||PhD, English Literature||Academia|
|Bowdoin College||Clayton Rose||MBA, PhD||Finance, Business/Academia|
|Carleton College||Steven Poskanzer||JD||Law|
|Claremont McKenna College||Hiram Chodosh||JD||Law, Academia|
|Middlebury College||Laurie Patton||PhD||Academia|
|Washington and Lee University||William C. Dudley||PhD, Philosophy||Academia|
TOP 15 PRIVATE UNIVERSITIES
|Princeton||Christipher L. Eisgruber||JD||Academia|
|Harvard||Lawrence Bacow||JD, PhD, MPP||Academia|
|Columbia||Lee C. Bollinger||JD||Academia|
|MIT||Rafael Reif||PhD, Engineering||Academia|
|Yale||Peter Salovey||PhD, Physiology||Academia|
|Stanford||Mark Tessier-Lavigne||PhD, Physiology||Academia|
|U. Chicago||Robert Zimmer||PhD, Mathematics||Academia|
|U. Pennsylvania||Amy Gutman||PhD, Political Science||Academia|
|Northwestern||Morton Schapiro||PhD, Economics||Academia|
|Duke||Vincent Price||PhD, Communications||Academia|
|Johns Hopkins||Ronald J. Daniels||JD||Law/Academia|
|Cal Tech||Thomas Felix Rosenbaum||PhD, Physics||Academia|
|Dartmouth||Philip J. Hanlon||PhD, Mathematics||Academia|
|Brown||Christina Paxson||PhD, Economics||Academia|
|Notre Dame||John Jenkins||PhD, Philosophy||Academia|
15 RANDOMLY SELECTED STATE UNIVERSITIES
|Northeastern Illinois University||Gloria Gibson||PhD, Folklore||Academia|
|Western Michigan University||Edward Montgomery||PhD, Economics||Government, Academia|
|Montana State University Billings||Dan Edelman||PhD, Mathematics Education||Finance/Accounting, Military|
|Michigan Technological University||Richard Koubek||PhD, Industrial Engineering||Academia|
|SUNY Polytechnic University||Grace Wang||PhD, Materials Science and Engineering||Science|
|SUNY Oneonta||Barbara Morris||PhD, Political Science||Public Service/Education Administration|
|Penn State Beaver||Jenifer Cushman||PhD, German Literature||Academia|
|Coastal Carolina University||David DeCenzo||PhD, Industrial Relations||Academia/Labor Economics|
|UT Arlington||Vistasp Karbhari||PhD, Composite Materials||Engineering/Academia|
|Mississippi State University||Mark Keenum||PhD, Agricultural Economics||Public Service/Academia|
|CSU Fresno||Joseph Castro||PhD, Higher Education Policy/Leadership||Academia|
|CSU Stanislaus||Ellen Junn||PhD, Psychology||Education/Academia|
|Univ. of Colorado Boulder||Phillip DiStefano||PhD, Humanities Education||Education/Academia|
|Univ. of Minnesota Rochester||Lori Carrell||PhD, Speech Communication||Education Administration|
|Univ. of Nevada Reno||Marc Johnson||PhD, Agricultural Economics||Academia|
Of the universities selected, academia (meaning former professors and researchers) dominates the list of backgrounds. Those backgrounds listed as “science/academia” or “engineering/academia” indicate that the president worked as a professor and as a researcher in some non-academic context.
A somewhat common trend appears of a combined background. For example, the president of Coastal Carolina University, David DeCenzo, was both a professor and a corporate employee trainer at a health insurance company. Several of the engineers, such as Henry Yang of UC Santa Barbara, Pradeep Khosla of UC San Diego, and Timothy Killeen of Illinois, served on scientific advisory boards for organizations including NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Air Force, to complement their academic careers.
While the elite universities select for renowned scholars in specialized fields, the randomly selected state universities showed more of a tendency towards long careers in educational administration and less illustrious scholarship. This supports the research of Scott Beardsley, who found that “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.” Specifically, his research showed that 16% of top-50 liberal arts colleges have non-academic presidents, while that percentage rises to 38 for the 101-150 ranked liberal arts colleges.
Demographically, women and minority presidents are proportionally more represented at public and two-year universities rather than privates.
While the position of college president has changed over time, selecting more for business-minded leaders and for those who do not fit the traditional demographic mold, that change has naturally been slow-going in more prestigious, established institutions.
Author: Paris Masiel