CEOs as University Presidents

19 February 2008 at 11:01 am 3 comments

| Peter Klein |

I could have titled this post “University Presidents as CEOs,” focusing on the characteristics and responsibilities of university administrators. But I’m interested here in universities hiring former corporate CEOs, rather than career educators, as presidents. Gary Forsee, Sprint-Nextel CEO from 2005 to 2007, became my boss yesterday when he began his term as President of the University of Missouri System. Forsee’s selection last year raised hackles among some faculty because he holds only a bachelor’s degree and has no faculty or university administrator experience. (A greater concern, among some faculty, was the eagerness with which Sprint, under Forsee’s leadership, participated in the Bush Administration’s warrantless wiretapping program.) The University of Colorado is apparently in a similar situation, though with far greater controversy.

Does a university president need a PhD? Under the university-as-guild model, hiring a leader from outside the guild is unthinkable, akin to bringing in Richard Dawkins to head the Catholic Church, or hiring a guy who never played in the NBA to coach an NBA team (actually, that happened). On the other hand, if the university is just another service organization, then hiring leaders from outside makes perfect sense.

Note that the University of Missouri, like many state university systems, is organized as a multi-campus system, comprising the University of Missouri-Columbia (the “flagship” campus), the University of Missouri-St. Louis, the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and the institution formerly known as the University of Missouri-Rolla. Each campus has its own chief executive (Chancellor) and chief academic officer (Provost), so the system president has little operational responsibility. Instead, his job is — well, it’s not too clear what the system president’s job is, except to harangue the state legislature for more funding. Restructuring the system itself could be an objective; indeed, after the system curators approved the Columbia campus’s request to drop the “-Columbia” from its official designation, UM-St. Louis and UM-Kansas City threatened to withdraw from the system altogether. Forsee certainly has experience with restructuring, having overseen Sprint’s 2005 merger with Nextel; unfortunately, the disappointing results of that merger contributed to his ouster at Sprint in 2007.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Education, Institutions.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. REW  |  19 February 2008 at 2:15 pm

    The president of a multi-campus system is not an academic leader, as you point out, Peter. The fun question to ask is how far down the hierarchy from the system president can “we” tolerate a non-academic leader. The chief academic officer (provost) must always be an academic, but what about the direct supervisor and direct subordinate; campus CEO and college dean? Our own dean search in the College of Business had a very brief moment when we discussed nonacademic candidates in general. The discussion ended when it was codified that the Dean has to understand, respect, and lead the P&T process; and that the Dean had to be tenured in one of the College departments. Your system president fails on the latter for sure.

    What of the campus CEO? If the provost is the CAO, does it matter if the CEO is ex-industry, since they have other subordinates whose lives are about budgets, physical plant, residence halls, security, and other nonacademic (i.e. $$$) issues? Let the provost run the guild and let the CEO build the guild hall.

  • 2. abusinessprofessor  |  5 March 2008 at 11:32 am

    Peter, you raise a good question when you ask “Does a university President need a PhD?”. I think in some ways this question is about the modern foundations of the discipline of Business Administration. Feel free to correct me, but I believe that modern business administration education is based on the idea that you can have a team of professionals academically trained in business- professional managers- who can step into any kind of industry and business and fix things. If this is correct, and higher education is an industry, then we will just need to accept that professional managers can lead organizations in our industry too, just as a professional manager with no experience in steel or automobile manufacturing can lead a steel company or an automobile company.

    I thought REW’s comment about “how far down the hierarchy from the system president can “we” tolerate…” was interesting. The comment suggests that REW is not really comfortable with the idea of a non-academic administrator in higher education organizations, which I am sure is a belief many other people share. However, theoretically if a non-academic can be a system president, s/he can also be a dean or chancellor. The P&T process is a recruitment and retention tool, and different leaders are free to use whatever tools they are comfortable with.

    BTW, The NYT had an article today (Mar 5) about a non-academic president of a small liberal arts college in PA who has successfully turned the college around financially. I think it’s an interesting article!

  • 3. REW  |  10 March 2008 at 11:12 am

    While a non-academic can theoretically be a dean or chancellor, as the previous post suggests, the empirics militate against it for many institutions that are classified as “research universities”. The adverse selection problem and the unpleasant moral hazard problems (on the part the faculty as well as the administrator) have been he fodder for Chronicle of Higher Education headlines.
    I would also suggest the the P&T process is not “a recruitment and retention tool”, but it is an article of faith in academic communities tied to such shibboleths as “academic freedom” and “faculty governance”. I wish P&T was more tool-like and utilitarian, but it is wielded with art — often dark art.

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