Thursday, May 23, 2024

Rethinking university leadership

After weeks of criticism from alumni, donors and public officials — and disastrous testimony on Capitol Hill — Liz Magill stepped down as the University of Pennsylvania’s president on Saturday over her stance on combating antisemitism. Meanwhile, the heads of Harvard and M.I.T. remain under pressure, with some of their fiercest critics continuing to call for them to resign, too.

That has ignited a broader debate about how American universities are run, and raised a question: Should these institutions look outside of academia for their top leadership?

A recap: Magill resigned — followed shortly by Scott Bok, the chairman of Penn’s board of trustees — days after she gave evasive, legalistic answers to lawmakers on whether students advocating the genocide of Jews should be disciplined. Claudine Gay, the president of Harvard, faces similar pressure from alumni including the financier Bill Ackman, though she has also won support from faculty; the Harvard Corporation, a governing board that could oust her, is set to meet on Monday.

Modern universities may require different kinds of leadership. Traditionally, university presidents have been either academics or veteran school administrators: 83 percent of those leaders have had a doctorate, while just 1.4 percent had a master’s in business administration, according to the American Council for Education.

But colleges and universities are now multibillion-dollar enterprises, with Harvard’s endowment standing at $50 billion and Penn’s at $21 billion. Their presidents report to boards that are often stocked with prominent business executives, and they must frequently raise money from corporate leaders. They’re also increasingly expected to deftly navigate a politically charged environment.

Some institutions have done well with presidents from outside academia. Barry Mills (who in fairness holds a doctorate in biology) jumped from being a partner at the white-shoe law firm Debevoise & Plimpton to serving as a highly regarded president of Bowdoin College for 14 years.

Politicians have also won acclaim in the role. Examples include Mitch Daniels, the former Republican governor of Indiana who froze tuition fees for seven straight years as president of Purdue University, and John Brademas, a Democratic lawmaker from Indiana who helped transform N.Y.U. into a global powerhouse.

But such a move may draw a backlash, especially from longtime professors who place a high value on an independent academia. (Coming from business doesn’t guarantee success either: Simon Newman, a former financier, resigned as president of a Maryland college after reportedly comparing struggling freshmen to bunnies that should be drowned or shot.)

Charlie Eaton, the author of “Bankers in the Ivory Tower,” said that leaders with an academic background could protect schools from outside pressure. “There’s already so much pull towards doing what donors would want the university to do,” he told DealBook. “You need presidents who are academics to keep the university anchored in that project.”

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