The job description of today’s university president increasingly resembles that of a CEO, with the molding of young minds and overseeing a community of scholars taking a distinct backseat to balancing the books and raising cash, academic analysts say.
As the ongoing clash at the University of Virginia demonstrates, college presidents are expected, by their boards and by the public, to make hard choices and trim costs wherever possible.
That has led some universities, faced with greater financial challenges and more competition than ever, to look outside the scholarly world, to those with strong business or even political backgrounds, for their next president.
On Thursday, Indiana’s Purdue bagged one of the state’s biggest political heavyweights, announcing that Gov. Mitch Daniels will take over that school’s presidency when he leaves the governor’s mansion in six months.
It was the latest evidence that, for many schools, the traditional school president with the academic resume is, in many cases, no longer enough.
“The most striking change has been an increasing number of presidents coming from backgrounds that are not academic. They’re coming from law, from business, and they don’t have an understanding of a commitment to the academic enterprise,” said Robert Kreiser, senior program officer with the American Association of University Presidents (AAUP). “Their emphasis has to do with corporate values. More and more, unfortunately, they’re seen not as educators, but as managers and fundraisers.”
The shifting landscape
The AAUP has been among the most vocal critics of the recent ouster of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan, whose removal has sparked student protests and fueled a larger debate about exactly what’s expected of college presidents in 2012.
Ms. Sullivan, a decorated scholar who previously served as a professor, led the sociology department at the University of Texas and held other academic positions, has been replaced by Carl P. Zeithaml, the dean of the school’s School of Commerce. He also holds a bachelor’s degree in economics and a doctorate in strategic management.
While the university’s board of visitors has been coy about exactly what led to the rift with Ms. Sullivan, speculation has centered on her supposed unwillingness to make severe, top-down budget cuts - a growing necessity at many universities struggling with reduced funding from state governments and trying to stem the tide of ever-rising tuition costs.
No one has questioned Ms. Sullivan’s academic background; in years past, those qualifications may have been enough.
“It used to be that presidents were chosen on their academic credentials. But, then again, the main job used to be managing the curricula,” said Patricia Cormier, former president of Virginia’s Longwood University. She now runs the New Presidents’ Academy, a leadership-training conference for college leaders, operated by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
“The president [of a university] has to be out there all the time,” Ms. Cormier said. “It requires a different kind of person. It’s not the same inner-focused, scholarly type who can sit in his or her office and not do much.”
Taking the fall
Ms. Sullivan isn’t the first president to be forced out under controversial circumstances. In November, the Penn State University board of trustees removed 14-year President Graham Spanier amid accusations the school’s leadership had failed to stop alleged sexual abuse by former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, now on trial.
Lawrence H. Summers, former Treasury secretary and former director of the White House’s National Economic Council, resigned as president of Harvard University after a no-confidence vote from the school’s faculty. Mr. Summers had come under fire for, among other things, suggesting that women were underrepresented in the fields of science and engineering because of a “different availability of aptitude at the high end” compared to men.
Those incidents underscore the intense microscope college presidents find themselves under. Recently, the scrutiny has most often been tied to the cost of higher education, with parents, the media and political figures pointing the finger at the heads of institutions for failing to keep tuition prices under control.
“It’s human nature to want someone to blame. When it comes to the issue of college affordability and rising tuition, a lot of the attention goes to the person in the presidency,” said Dan Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
Cash is king
The concern over prices has led presidents to double down on fundraising, often crisscrossing the country to meet with wealthy donors and alumni. The practice has always been a part of private institutions, which don’t rely on state funds as much to make ends meet.
But as states have slashed higher-education spending, public colleges have had to look elsewhere for contributions.
“In the public sector, we didn’t really feel the need” to fundraise, said Javier Cevallos, president of Pennsylvania’s Kutztown University. “That’s changed quite a bit.”
While the laserlike focus on finances can, for some presidents, make the campus office feel more like the corporate boardroom, there are distinct differences between running a business and overseeing a university, Ms. Cormier said.
Tenured professors want their voices to be heard, as do board members, donors, alumni, coaches and other prominent figures on and off campus, she said.
“You have to understand that a university is not a corporate model,” Ms. Cormier said. “You can’t simply dictate to people. You can do it if you’re Bill Gates, but you can’t do it at a university.”
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