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.




University President/Chancellor Highest Degree Background
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




College President/Chancellor Highest Degree Background
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




University President/Chancellor Highest Degree Background
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




University President/Chancellor Highest Degree Background
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