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More college presidents hail from outside academia

Vital skills honed in business world

Before he took the helm at Hampshire College, Jonathan Lash was the longtime head of a think tank in Washington, D.C. Matthew Cavanaugh for The Globe

Michael Alexander has heard it all before: People with business backgrounds do not understand academia and are ill-equipped to lead colleges and universities. He has a ready rejoinder to such talk: “Balderdash.’’

Before he became president of Lasell College in Newton in 2007, he worked in entertainment and as chief executive of a technology firm. He never finished his doctorate, which means two-thirds of his full-time faculty outrank him academically.

A growing number of colleges seem to share his faith in the value of outsider presidents, PhD or no PhD. Twenty percent of college presidents in the United States now come from fields outside academia, a sharp increase from 13 percent just six years ago, according to a new national survey by the American Council on Education. Nearly a third have never been professors.


Many believe the trend is a symptom of the increasing corporatization of higher education, as colleges, especially smaller ones with lackluster or limited endowments, struggle to steady their finances and attract students willing and able to pay high tuition.

The latest of the new breed of outsiders in New England is Jonathan Lash, who before his inauguration two weeks ago as president of Hampshire College had worked in an array of non-academic jobs: as a Peace Corps volunteer, federal prosecutor, civil servant, and longtime president of a large Washington, D.C., think tank.

“It’s been a very steep learning curve because I’m not an academic,’’ he said of his time so far at Hampshire, in Amherst. But he added that in some ways running a college is easier than his previous job, which entailed “struggling with the politics of Washington’’ and getting people to care about climate change. “At Hampshire,’’ he said, “I know I can get my hands on the problems and actually make a difference.’’


He has plenty of company locally. His counterparts, many of whom have assumed their posts in the last five years, include the presidents of Fisher College (Thomas McGovern, a corporate trainer and management consultant), Wheelock College (Jackie Jenkins-Scott, from the public health world), and Simmons College (Helen Drinan, banking, human resources, and health care).

“Most search committees now want to make sure there’s at least one person in their pool who has a nontraditional or business background,’’ said Alexander, of Lasell. He added that people with business backgrounds bring unique skills to the job, such as understanding how to finance institutions with bonds and “knowing how not to create some thick strategic planning document that sits on the shelf and never does anything.’’

The Berklee College of Music tapped not only a non-academic to lead it but also someone who is not a professional musician: Roger Brown, cofounder of the childcare mega-chain Bright Horizons.

He does have a music background, though not of Grammy caliber; as a drummer he released “a couple of very unheralded jazz fusion records’’ in his youth, and as Bright Horizons’ chief executive he recorded children’s music to distribute to parents. “All my students are better than I am,’’ he said.

He probably would not have wound up in academia if not for serendipity. After 18 years at Bright Horizons, he said, he got bored. Thinking about starting a charter school in 2003, he picked up an issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education that had an article on the topic and wound up looking at an ad for the Berklee presidency. In the ensuing round of job interviews, he worried his lack of academic experience would be a liability. It was not.


“The board said, ‘Look, we have 575 musicians on faculty already. We need somebody who knows how to build buildings, invest our endowment, be entrepreneurial,’ ’’ he said.

With increasing pressure on schools to raise money while cutting costs and tuition, he said, those skills “are going to be even more important in the next 20 years than they are now.’’

The new survey’s authors are not quite as sure that corporatization is driving the trend towards outsider presidents, because they do not know exactly how many outsiders are coming from the business world. (Their survey gave respondents several choices of backgrounds with which to identify, such as “business/industry’’ and “nonprofit sector,’’ but for reasons that mystify the authors, the most popular response by far was “other.’’)

Local presidents said they still felt the trend was rooted in a need for colleges to operate more like companies and less like, well, colleges.

“The way of doing business in higher education is undergoing enormous review, challenge, and change,’’ said Drinan, of Simmons. “I can readily understand why a different skill set would be desirable. I can’t imagine it isn’t going to get more desirable.’’

Drinan said she had met resistance to some of her business-minded reforms, such as introducing performance reviews even for tenured professors.


“It’s not unusual for me to get feedback that says, ‘I would really rather see Simmons go back to being run like an academic institution rather than a business,’ ’ she said. “There is a natural suspicion about corporate methodologies.’’

If Gary Rhoades were on the Simmons faculty he would probably be one of those complaining. A professor of higher education at the University of Arizona and a vocal critic of college corporatization in all its forms - high presidential salaries, administrative bloat, low pay for adjuncts - he said the trend toward outsider presidents concerned him.

Making and selling a product, he noted, is not the same as educating a student body.

“If you produce software that doesn’t work, it blows up. You know about it immediately,’’ he said. “If you produce a student who’s terribly unhappy, you don’t know about it in the same way.’’

As a college president, he added, “yes, you have to be conscious of a bottom line. But your world is about more than that.’’

Mary Carmichael can be reached at mary.carmichael@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @mary_carmichael.