More university governing boards are hiring presidents whose career achievements occurred outside of academia as the task of running universities becomes increasingly multifaceted, experts say.
Jackie Jenkins-Scott was intrigued by the idea of becoming a college president. Nevermind that she hadn’t held a fulltime university job before, and her entire administrative career had been spent in health care and social work. In her view, she’d already succeeded at improving the lives of young people. Why not try doing it through academia?
The longer she considered this while soul-searching in late 2003, the more sense it made.
Wheelock College trustees agreed. They hired her in July 2004 to lead the small, Boston private school specializing in teacher education, social work and child life programs.
“I was fortunate the timing worked out well, because I was prepared to interview for presidencies for much longer,” Jenkins-Scott says.
She is among a growing number of college presidents who aren’t professional scholars. Some have excelled in nonacademic spheres of higher education, such as law or finance. Others, like Jenkins-Scott, entered their presidencies as outsiders.
As the task of running universities becomes increasingly multifaceted, more governing boards are hiring presidents whose career achievements occurred outside of classrooms, labs and think tanks, experts say. Today’s presidents must manage multimillion dollar operations while juggling duties as varied as fundraising, legislative relations and community outreach.
In 2006, for instance, 17 percent of presidents polled said they came to their positions from outside higher education, according to a study by the American Council on Education and the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources. Another 23 percent previously worked as nonacademic officers in higher education.
“There’s definitely growing interest in the hiring of nontraditional presidents,” says Dr. Judith McLaughlin, a senior lecturer at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. “Universities hiring nontraditional presidents are looking for someone who will take the institution beyond its immediate context.”
McLaughlin and other experts agree the overwhelming majority of searches for new presidents in recent years includes at least one nonacademic candidate. And governing boards are seeking nontraditional candidates for their skills, which are often honed while leading other organizations or improving an aspect of academia other than research and teaching. A key reason nonscholars aren’t getting hired at an even higher rate, McLaughlin and others say, is because of faculty pressure on the governing boards. Faculty typically fear a nontraditional president will quash their academic freedoms, tenure and shared governance of the institution.
Even some of the outsiders who became college presidents were slow to warm to the idea — at least at first.
“I thought it was the wackiest thing anyone could propose,” says Dr. Barry Mills, president of Bowdoin College since 2001. He’d spent more than 20 years at a New York-based international law firm where he rose to deputy presiding partner.
Mills, then a member of Bowdoin’s board of trustees for six years and head of its presidential search committee, says faculty and other trustees “drafted me for president, and it took me by surprise.”
But within a few months, Mills, who earned bachelor’s degrees in biochemistry and government from Bowdoin, grew intrigued enough to leave his law career for the small, private liberal arts school on Maine’s coast. Among other things, he wanted to improve access and affordability to Bowdoin, a place that encouraged him to explore various intellectual interests. He earned a Ph.D. in biology at Syracuse University before deciding to go to law school.
“I was always challenged in my work in law, but I also wanted to do something different one day, broader than just serving my clients.”
Communicating With Constituencies
Presidents interviewed by Diverse agree that listening to their many constituencies is as important, if not more, than what they say or do, even if the listening doesn’t directly impact their decisions. And unlike other industries in private and public sectors, the list of constituencies in academia can seem dizzying: students, parents, faculty, staff, alumni, trustees, donors, community residents and so on. A university or community college president also grooms relationships with peer institutions that have similar missions or geographic proximity.
Ironically, the art of communicating with multiple constituencies simultaneously was what challenged Dr. John Rudley enough to leave his career in public accounting for a series of jobs in finance and administration in academia.
Rudley, who became president of Texas Southern University earlier this year, first grew acquainted with higher education finance when he took a temporary assignment in the early 1980s at TSU. He discovered how communicating any campus issue, such as student fee hikes, resulted in myriad spinoffs. For instance, university officials must explain reasons for the increases not only to students and parents, but also to faculty and to legislators. “At the accounting firms, we were focused on one product or business. A university environment is much more exciting,” Rudley says.
Rudley managed finances full time for TSU, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and the Tennessee Board of Regents. Most recently, he served as University of Houston vice president for administration and finance before returning to TSU as president. In the early 1990s, he worked for the Department of Education, creating an accounting wing.
He sought his doctorate, though, because no matter where he worked, what he accomplished or how high up the career ladder he climbed, he didn’t command the same respect among faculty that professional scholars did. “I got sick of them assuming the quality of information I had wasn’t worth listening to.”
Since earning an Ed.D. in adm i n i s t r a t i o n from Tennessee State University in 2001, Rudley notices “everyone relaxes when I come into the room because now I’m one of them, as they see it.”
His experience is hardly unusual. Jackson State University President Ronald Mason Jr. joined Tulane University in 1982 as university attorney. For the next 16 years, he steadily assumed more responsibilities, eventually overseeing all finance and business operations. Mason chuckles when summing up the attitude faculty everywhere hold toward finance officers: “They honestly believe there’s minimal need for business managers.”
Yet he and others with fiscal acumen believe it is as crucial to a university’s success as scholarly achievements are. Brenda Hellyer, San Jacinto College’s chancellordesignate and previously its vice chancellor of fiscal affairs, describes how financial considerations helped the community college rebound in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, which devastated southeast Texas earlier this semester and forced San Jacinto to close for two weeks. The school’s emergency preparedness plan has systems in place to continue paying faculty and staff on time, checklists to document building damages for insurance claims, and so forth.
But as a sign that academic credentials remain valued, Hellyer’s promotion to the top job next May when the current chancellor retires is a conditional one, according to school trustees: She has to earn her doctorate. So in fall 2007, she began a one-year, unpaid leave of absence to earn a doctorate in education through the University of Texas at Austin’s Community College Leadership Program. An accountant by training, Hellyer is now back at San Jacinto shadowing the current chancellor.
Hellyer and others interviewed say one of their biggest adjustments when transitioning from nonacademic careers into higher education was accepting the fact that faculty weigh in on deliberations involving major policy changes. Consequently, change occurs slower among universities than in other industries.
Talent and Confidence
Yet these presidents have amassed their share of accomplishments anyway, including those who were university newcomers when hired. More than 26 percent of Bowdoin students were minorities in the 2007 fall semester, compared to only 18 percent in 1999, before Mills became president. Effective this semester, the school has replaced student loans with grants. “We’re now looking more like America racially and socioeconomically,” Mills says. “I strongly believe in creating opportunity for all students.” At Wheelock, minorities make up 27 percent of freshmen this year, Jenkins-Scott says, about twice the number when she arrived. A growing number are from Boston and therefore likely to remain in the area to teach after graduation.
Also, Wheelock now offers international service learning trips. For a week or two, students examine education and child welfare in a foreign country in exchange for doing socioeducational and community development projects while they’re abroad. This school year, trips are scheduled for Benin, Ghana, Mexico and Northern Ireland.
“Our students come back from these experiences changed,” Jenkins- Scott says. “I want them graduating Wheelock as global citizens.”
Jenkins-Scott, who was president and chief executive officer of a communitybased health and human services center for 20 years, says her Wheelock tenure “has helped me stay connected to the issues I’ve always cared about.”
Mills, who’s often contacted by outsiders inspired by his career change, says many of them mistakenly believe “this is like the movie ‘Mr. Smith Goes To Washington,’ that it would be charming and romantic to go back to college.
“I tell them it’s worth considering if they want to improve a college. Otherwise, they shouldn’t bother. Leading one of these institutions isn’t for everyone.”
But with many baby boomer presidents poised to retire in the next few years, nontraditional candidates are likely to get strong consideration to replace them. “What’s most important is talent and confidence,” Jenkins-Scott says. “Everything else is background music.”
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