Growing debate: Do universities need to be led by an academic?

College presidents with non-academic backgrounds account for a growing share of higher education leaders, but recent campus protests have some questioning the value in the trend, Laura McKenna reports for The Atlantic.

In 2012, 20% of college presidents lacked academic experience—up from 13% in 2006, according to the American Council on Education. Many of these leaders came from law, business, or government organizations.

Defenders of the practice say that out-of-industry presidents tend to be well-positioned to help control costs and be innovative. But many faculty members view them with suspicion.

At the University of Iowa, the faculty voted no-confidence in the Board of Regents' choice for president: Bruce Harreld, former president of Boston Market and VP at IBM. Only 3% of faculty agreed he was qualified to lead, according to one survey.

Iowa picked a president from outside of academia. And that's put academics on edge.

Recently, Timothy Wolfe resigned from his position as president at the University of Missouri following student protests regarding the way he addressed reports of racism on campus. Wolfe was a business executive before entering the higher education world, and some point to that as the reason he did not engage in a dialogue with students. However, that remains just one of many explanations for the protests—which have spread to about 100 other campuses, including schools led by presidents with traditional academic backgrounds.

McKenna notes that at other colleges, however, presidents' reactions to student protests differed. At Princeton University, President Christopher Eisgruber—an academic—met quickly with students and agreed to consider demands.           

"There is real value that comes from having a deep understanding of the dynamics of a college campus and from having the loyalty of faculty. Other CEO college presidents should take note," McKenna concludes (McKenna, The Atlantic, 12/3).

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