Tuesday, March 27, 2012


Ask the Administrator: The Non-Academic President

A new correspondent writes:

I work at a comprehensive community college.  The president has announced his retirement and a search committee is being formed.  Several of the faculty and staff have mentioned nominating a candidate who might be a great fit for the position, but he has no graduate degree and limited direct experience in higher education.  His experience in other areas, however, makes him attractive.  He has served in elected state offices and on a number of educational boards and committees and has a history of supportive relationships with higher education in general and the college in particular.  He certainly possesses some of the managerial skills necessary to do the job and brings some unique qualifications to the table.  While his lack of driect experience is certain to be objectionable to some, his pro higher education history and reputation are likely to favorably influence others. Is it critical that a president come from the academic ranks?  What problems might we expect to encounter during the hiring process?  What issues have others encountered working for a president from outside the profession?

I’ll open by noting that region matters.  In my neck of the woods, a candidate without a graduate degree of some sort would be a non-starter.  That may or may not hold in your area, depending on regional accreditation requirements and local culture.

Assuming no bright-line rule from the accreditors, the trustees, or the state, the question would be what the likely challenges are.

Community college presidencies are at an inflection point.  The average age of a community college president in the US is 61 and climbing.  The cohort that moved into community colleges during the great growth period is aging out, but the bench behind them is often thin.  Historically, the most common “feeder” job for new presidents was chief academic officer – usually called either an academic vice president or a provost – but the average age there is climbing, too, and surveys suggest that fewer CAO’s want presidencies than was once the case.  Those two developments suggest that more presidents will come from other places.

And that’s not necessarily bad.  Presidents’ jobs have become much more about external relations – community, philanthropic, and political – than they once were.  (That’s a major reason that fewer CAO’s see the appeal.)  Someone who can work those relationships well, such as your preferred candidate, stands a decent chance of being successful at the role as it has evolved. 

The major issue will be with the faculty on academic issues.  It’s one thing to be broadly supportive of education; it’s quite another to understand academic culture and the needs and fears of faculty.  Many faculty will fear – with some warrant – that a president whose major focus is financial or political will neglect academic matters, or sell them out to the highest bidder with the best of intentions.  (That’s remarkably easy to do.) 

My advice to a candidate who fits the profile of your candidate would be to establish, quickly, a strong provost system.  Keep or appoint a provost with unimpeachable academic credentials and a solid sense of academic culture, and then back the provost fully.  If the entire college understands the president/provost relationship as similar to a CEO/COO relationship, and they trust the provost, it could work.  But a non-academic president who isn’t humble or self-aware enough to hire his weakness will run aground quickly through tone-deafness.   Faculty culture is a creature unto itself; at some level, either you get it or you don’t.  And even if you do, lacking the credentials will mean you start with a strike against you. 

That’s my sense of it, though I can’t claim to have seen every case.   Wise and worldly readers, have you seen cases where this kind of president has succeeded?  Or is this ultimately a fool’s errand?

Good luck!

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Yes, I have seen it succeed, at more than one college/university. (It isn't exactly common, but it is easier to find than you might guess.) However, every person I know of had a J.D., which apparently met the "highest degree" requirement of that regions accreditation organization.

When did it succeed? There was an outstanding Provost who had the respect of the faculty and was given a free hand by the "CEO", exactly as you describe in your advice. Then again, that might be the key to success for any President these days.
My ambition for the last 5 years has been a college presidency, eventually. I know that I've got to age another 20 years at least before I'd be considered. I've worked in higher ed as a staff member (and now PT faculty) for closing in on 10 years. That being said I think it's important that colleges do consider a "non-faculty" member and if accreditation allows someone without the PhD. It's true in my area that President equals fundraiser. Have a good Provost. However, even though I have not rose through the faculty ranks that doesn't mean I don't understand faculty fears, the perils of tenure and the dreaded curriculum revision. I'd say keep an open mind.
There was quite a commotion when our new president came on board: his highest degree is an MBA but he brought expertise and connections in the political world as well as all three of the fields that we touch on in our tricultural mandate (Anglophone, Francophone and Aboriginal).

Things have calmed down, mostly, since, but it's always one of the first complaints that some disgruntled types bring up when they have a beef with the presidential actions or policies. So it can be an albatross around an administrator's neck - if he or she is strong enough, it won't be a huge problem, but it will never not be an issue.
In the case where you do not have a Provost who is respected by the faculty having a non-academic President can lead to serious trust issues. The Provost is perceived as the President's lapdog, while the President has shown little sympathy to faculty concerns. Morale suffers because it seems that the President has no checks on his power. He has little respect for faculty autonomy.

But damn he is good at fundraising.
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