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University presidents coming from a more diverse background

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There’s a reason the job descriptions for university presidents are painted with a wide brush.

Most, if not all, profiles for university presidents — like the one released by the University of Nebraska last week — call for dynamic, innovative and visionary leaders capable of impacting great change while effectively communicating with everyone who might interact with the institution at any number of levels.

It’s easy to get lost in the litany of superlatives universities use to describe their next leader.

NU, for example, is seeking a “candidate with experience in and a thorough understanding of U.S. higher education and familiarity with the complexity of a major public research university.”

Although NU leaders said candidates with strong backgrounds in academia would be given preference, an advanced degree is not a requirement set in stone.

The same goes for Florida State University, which produced similar criteria for its own search.

“The next president will be a strategic and visionary leader who understands how universities work and how they contribute to improving the lives of students and the educational, economic, and cultural welfare of the citizens of the state of Florida.”

Beyond the obvious — a university wants the best person it can find — what does it all mean?

Onlookers in the ongoing searches at NU and Florida State have debated the qualifications for the job after prominent political figures publicly announced their applications.

NU faculty members and other stakeholders have been critical of Gov. Dave Heineman — the only known candidate for the NU job — for his lack of an advanced degree and no experience within a university system.

A thousand miles to the southeast, Florida State’s faculty approved a vote of no confidence in the search firm responsible for its presidential search after two well-known politicians entered the applicant pool, presumably driving other candidates from the search.

Molly Corbett Broad, the president of the American Council on Education, said the qualifications sought in a president are changing as governing bodies and search committees look for leaders capable of striking a balance between academics and outside interests.

“Being a university president is becoming an ever more challenging job,” said Broad, who is the former president of the University of North Carolina system. “There are a growing number and variety of constituencies and issues a president has to deal with.”

If the job descriptions from various universities are somewhat vague, the data illustrating current trends in university leadership may be more telling.

The American Council on Education has charted qualifications, perceived workloads and attitudes toward issues in higher education among presidents and chancellors since 1986, publishing survey results every five years.

The latest survey, released in 2011 and with data compiled from more than 1,600 university leaders, shows that more women are becoming presidents (26 percent) while the number of racial or ethnic minorities serving in top administrative spots has dropped (13 percent).

Presidents are growing older — the average age is 61 — while their average tenure has decreased from 8.5 years to 7 years.

The American Council on Education found 77 percent of university presidents claim a terminal degree, and 19 percent of presidents were presidents at another university prior to their current appointment.

Roughly 1 in 3 presidents were previously a provost or chief academic officer before seeking a president’s job, the survey shows.

Within university systems including Big Ten Conference member schools, 12 of the 13 leaders came to their current jobs through academia. The notable exception is Purdue University President Mitch Daniels, a former two-term governor of Indiana. Daniels holds an Ivy League degree from Princeton and a law degree from Georgetown.

What's happening within the Big Ten isn't the case everywhere, however. Broad said the number of provosts becoming presidents is dropping elsewhere as the job responsibilities of a university leader become “much more external” and university presidents are spending more time face-to-face with constituencies that interact with the university — business leaders, athletic boosters, politicians.

“(Provosts) came into higher education to lead a much more contemplative life with lots of interaction with students,” Broad said. “While the chief academic officer remains the most logical job you have before you become president, we are finding that increasing numbers of provosts are not interested in the job.”

Only 16 percent of presidents said their internal constituencies — campus administrators, faculty, staff, students — were the majority of their focus in 2011, a sharp decline from the 59 percent reported in 2006. A growing amount of time is spent with legislators, policymakers, and the university’s governing board, presidents reported.

From 2006 to 2011, more presidents — 20 percent — came to their jobs from outside of higher education. Furthermore, roughly 500 of the survey’s respondents reported they were never on the faculty of any institution of higher education.

Broad said her group is continuing to see more presidential search committees selecting candidates with backgrounds outside academia, although those leaders may not stay in the position for as long.

She added successful university leaders — regardless of background — embrace academic freedom for faculty, maintain autonomy from political and other outside interests and share governance with different constituencies within the university.

“I used to say in jest that the role of the president is to create an environment where primadonnas can flourish,” Broad said, “but it’s also important for presidents to be objective, strategic and try to balance the aspirations of the faculty on one hand with the needs of the state on the other."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.


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Higher education/statehouse reporter

A native of Beatrice, Chris Dunker has reported on higher education, state government and other issues since joining the Journal Star in 2014.

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