Phi Beta Cons

Consider People with Business Backgrounds for College Presidents

The life of a college president used to be pretty calm and without much risk. Now that the higher education market is in the throes of change, however, that is no longer the case. Instead of automatically looking for a president who has come up through the academic ranks, it would be wise for schools to consider people who have a background in the business world. That’s the argument Vic Brown makes in today’s Pope Center piece.

“Through their experience,” Brown writes, “business executives are well-equipped to respond to unanticipated market changes, competitive threats, and know how to capitalize on strategic opportunities. Therefore, it’s somewhat surprising that most small colleges continue drawing their presidents almost exclusively from the academic ranks.”

I suppose that reflects the whims of boards of trustees — just stick with the old formula even if the school might need someone different. But non-profit decision-makers don’t have much to lose if they get it wrong.

Anyway, some schools have reached out to people with business experience and Brown recounts two good cases and one that’s not so good.

The good ones involve Philadelphia University president Stephen Spinelli, who has given that small institution a much better chance of survival by engineering a merger with another school in the area, and Drexel’s John Fry, who has revitalized that campus (and previously done the same at Penn and Franklin & Marshall). Brown provides a lot of detail on those cases.

But it is no sure thing to bring in a business person to run a college, as we have recently seen at Mount St. Mary’s. The school hired Simon Newman, a man with a long career in the financial industry. And now they’ll have to find someone else because he managed to blow things up with his careless words and autocratic response to criticism (firing faculty members who complained). Newman recently resigned and if the school was in trouble before, it is even more so now.

Bottom line: Trustees need to be more careful when searching for new presidents.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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