“Nontraditionals” as College Presidents: What Can Be Learned from Controversy?

Much has been said and written lately about the prospects of “nontraditional” candidates for college presidencies. There have been successes and failures in recruiting presidents from outside of education – from the corporate, government, and even military sectors. One recent high-profile controversy and resulting departure of a CEO-turned-president has many education leaders signaling the end of these experiments.

Dennis Barden

Dennis Barden

“Don’t carve that epitaph into the marble quite yet,” writes senior partner Dennis Barden in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, “Rumors of Its Death Are Greatly Exaggerated.”

“Confidence in the idea of hiring an outsider is shaken,” Barden adds. Nevertheless, “the controversy has been valuable in focusing the attention of boards and search committees on a candidate’s ability to communicate effectively and to advocate successfully across the cultural barriers between higher education and the commercial sector. That heightened attention may reduce the inevitable frictions that arise between boards and faculties (or other campus groups) in these turbulent times.”

The fact stands that many boards of trustees still view the traditional business model of higher education as broken or at least fundamentally flawed. In the face of continuing upheaval they desire to “impose a response to market pressures on the institution for which they bear fiduciary responsibility,” he notes.

In other words, expect more nontraditional presidents, though ones who have been thoroughly vetted for their affinity to traditional academic culture. Read Barden’s full article here.

By Paul Thomas, Strategic Communications Leader

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