More higher ed institutions recruiting leaders with business backgrounds

Colleges seek outsiders for a fresh approach to industry challenges

When some campuses find themselves in crisis, they turn to presidents with non-academic backgrounds to increase enrollment rates and solve budget problems, Matt Krupnick writes for the Hechinger Report.

"When you have to go through a transformation like our school did, there are pros to bringing in someone from outside your industry," says Paul Quinn College trustee Don Clevenger. The Dallas, Texas, college named corporate securities lawyer Michael Sorrell as its president in 2007, after the school was in danger of losing its accreditation.

The move was part of a growing trend of struggling colleges and universities turning to unorthodox leaders, such as former politicians, military officers, and civil servants, to bring new ideas "that have jolted the slow-moving world of higher education—often to the ire of the people who inhabit that world," Krupnick writes.

Pushback from professors

Non-academic presidents often encounter opposition from faculty and staff, who worry that the leaders simply won't understand higher education. In 2015, newly appointed, non-academic presidents at the University of Iowa and the University of North Carolina system both faced faculty criticism about qualifications and corporate ties.  

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At Paul Quinn, "there was friction, as you might imagine," says Clevenger, since Sorrell had been hired to overhaul the school. But after eight years under Sorrell, Paul Quinn's enrollment has risen and the institution posts large annual budget surpluses, and Clevenger asserts that the friction “has been ironed over."

University presidents have a thin line to walk, keeping the school financially viable while maintaining the confidence of academics on campus. Often, these two goals can seem to be at odds. Schools often turn to outsiders to bring a new perspective, but innovation isn't limited just to those with non-academic experience. Krupnick cites the leaders of Northern Arizona University and the University of Maine at Presque Isle, both of whom come from academia and “have been willing to push the boundaries of competency-based education."

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"We're at a turning point," says Peter Eckel, director of leadership programs at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education. "There's a lot of good presidents who are saying, 'This is the time to try new things.'"

Eckel also encourages boards to be  "supportive of innovation and allow presidents to take risks" (Krupnick, Hechinger Report, 12/25/15).

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.

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