Interest in finding university leaders from outside academia grows, but transition can be tough

July 15, 2017 GMT

A push from state lawmakers and a top University of Wisconsin System official to recruit campus leaders from outside academia would add UW institutions to a growing number of colleges that are searching for chancellors and presidents who don’t have Ph.D.s or tenure, experts say.

But while leaders from the private sector are often recruited in hopes they can bring fresh perspectives to higher education, the transition from the private sector to a college campus can be a difficult one, said Terry Hartle, a senior vice president at the American Council on Education.

At the University of Iowa, former IBM executive Bruce Harreld has had strained relationships with many professors, who question whether he is qualified to run the university.

Another business leader, Tim Wolfe, resigned as president of the University of Missouri System in 2015 amid high-profile protests that were prompted in part by what critics said was his poor handling of racist incidents and demonstrations at the state’s flagship campus.

“If you can’t adjust to the new culture — if you’re not comfortable with the decision-making … and the organizational complexity,” Hartle said, “you’re going to face challenges regardless of how successful you might have been as a manager in another industry.”

Others have moved into university leadership with relative ease despite their non-academic backgrounds, Hartle said, such as former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, now the president of Purdue University. And Hartle noted there have been plenty of university heads who came through the more typical academic pipeline of campus leadership but still struggled.

Ultimately, he said, the jury is still out on whether chancellors and presidents from outside academia are generally more or less effective than leaders from traditional backgrounds.

What is clear is that Wisconsin officials are not alone in wanting to give those candidates a shot — even as many UW faculty protest what they see as a misguided attempt to shake up universities.

Hartle said colleges are increasingly willing to consider or actively seek out applicants from business and politics when they search for leaders. For a number of reasons, though, that has not translated to a sea change in university leadership nationwide.

The percentage of college presidents whose previous job was not in academia — those who came from business or government, for instance — was 15.2 percent in 2016, down from 20.3 percent in 2011, according to an American Council on Education survey of university leaders.

“They may decide that running a college or university is not what they want to do,” Hartle said. Being chancellor means navigating the pressure and criticism of campus politics, often for less pay than an executive could expect to make in the private sector.

“It is a very challenging job,” he said.

UW leader, lawmakers want changes

John Behling, who was elected president of the UW Board of Regents last month, raised eyebrows when he said at a meeting July 7 that he wants UW institutions to recruit chancellors from the private sector, calling that “the latest trend” in higher education nationwide.

Behling’s comments came several weeks after members of the Legislature’s budget committee approved a Republican-authored amendment to the state budget that would bar UW institutions from having policies that require chancellors hold terminal degrees such as doctorates.

The UW System does not have any such policies, but rules at UW-Madison require that the institution’s chancellor and other top officials must be tenured professors.

According to the ACE survey, 18.6 percent of leaders at doctoral-granting institutions — a category that includes UW-Madison — were not tenured faculty in 2016, compared to 22.9 percent who were not in 2011.

Behling declined an interview request last week. He provided a statement through a UW System spokeswoman in which he said expanding the search for chancellors to non-academic candidates can help ensure institutions find “the best person for the job.”

At Iowa, concern over qualifications

In Iowa City, Harreld’s presidency has been controversial since its inception.

University of Iowa faculty members passed a vote of no confidence in the institution’s governing board over its selection of Harreld, who holds a master’s degree, in 2015. Critics said the search lacked transparency, with professors suspecting the fix was in among regents to appoint Harreld over others from academic backgrounds who faculty considered more qualified.

Judith Pascoe, an English professor at Iowa who has been a vocal critic of Harreld, recalled an on-campus presentation he gave as part of the selection process that left her unimpressed.

“He just didn’t really seem to know anything about the way universities are run or how faculty governance operated,” said Pascoe, who is leaving the university this summer.

Whether Harreld’s performance has improved since then is a matter of debate.

Pascoe and others have criticized his decision to extend the contract of an embattled athletic director last year, a controversy education professor Chris Morphew said felt like a result of Harreld “learning on the job” in a way a more traditional president wouldn’t need to.

Harreld has his defenders, however.

Steve McGuire, interim director of the university’s School of Art and Art History, told the Iowa City Press-Citizen, “I think some people might be surprised at how effective he is around issues of collaboration and transparency.”

Is tenure necessary to lead UW?

Back in Wisconsin, UW professors have criticized Behling’s comments while PROFS, the lobbying arm of the UW-Madison Faculty Senate, has asked state lawmakers to remove the budget provision on university leadership.

The professors argue leading UW-Madison or any institution of higher learning requires a knowledge of and appreciation for university values such as shared governance — the role of professors, students and staff in campus decision-making.

The requirement that chancellors hold tenure, PROFS wrote in a statement, “Underlines the need for incumbents to have experience, preparation and understanding of universities, paralleling leadership qualifications demanded by most industries.”

Noel Radomski, executive director of the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education, said he was not aware of any chancellors in UW’s history who came from outside academia.

But he and Hartle said there was little harm in opening up the search for future university leaders to those who aren’t professors.

Radomski noted the jobs of chancellors have changed over the years — they are more involved in raising money from donors and building relationships with state lawmakers, and have far less to do with academic affairs, which are often handled by provosts, deans and other support staff.

“Do you really need to have (a chancellor) with a tenure-track background?” Radomski asked. “Today’s president and chancellor is so different from yesterday’s.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.