Many presidents of top universities follow similar trajectories
By Ester Cross, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Wednesday, December 5, 2012
Four Ivy League universities are in various stages of transitioning to new presidential leadership, with Yale University and the College having recently announced their next presidents, Princeton University still undergoing a lengthy search process and Brown University’s president starting her term last July. Though each school is at different stages of choosing its next president and each follows its own specific criteria for selecting its leadership, there are marked similarities among both the profiles of individuals selected to lead these institutions and the paths these administrators take before assuming their leadership roles.
Last week’s announcement of the College’s President-Elect Philip Hanlon ’77 marked the conclusion of a presidential search led by the third Ivy League university in the last two years. Brown President Christina Paxson began her term in July, and Yale announced the selection of its former Provost Peter Salovey in October.
Alumni Trustee Search Committee Chair Peter Frederick ’65 said that Yale’s decision to appoint the current university provost was similar to a corporate-style promotion.
“I don’t think that would necessarily work at Dartmouth,” Frederick said. “It’s good to have someone who has experience in different areas like President Hanlon, who is an educator and administrator, but he has been at different schools, unlike having somebody who works their way all the way through the chain at one institution.”
Dean of Libraries and former Michigan Provost Paul Courant stressed the importance of selecting college and university leaders that are also academics.
“Presidents, provosts and leadership of institutions must engage with politics, with lots of things that are not part of the academy, but they must have a deep understanding and enthusiasm for teaching and learning and the value of it and the joy of it,” Courant said.
Yale’s Deputy Provost for the Arts and Humanities Emily P. Bakemeier ’82, who was also a member of Dartmouth’s Presidential Search Committee, said that most presidents in top-ranking research universities are tenured faculty members who have held high-level administrative positions. At selective institutions, faculty members who have demonstrated excellent administrative skills as chairs of departments are frequently named as deans and provosts prior to being appointed as university presidents.
“With each movement, you have learned that much more about the breadth and depth of the institution,” Bakemeier said. Association of Alumni President John Daukas ’84, however, challenged the idea that leaders from academia become the best college and university presidents.
“There are lots of leaders outside of academia, and there may not be that many good leaders in academia if they happen to grow up in a bureaucracy that blunts leadership,” Daukus said.
Daukus criticized the College faculty for insisting that the pool of potential applicants for president be limited to members of academia, noting that limiting the applicant pool prevented consideration of equally qualified candidates.
Paxson, who was named dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 2009, also has a strong history in academia, similar to Hanlon. As a graduate of Swarthmore College and Princeton, however, she is a Brown “University outsider,” The Brown Daily Herald reported, which is in contrast to Hanlon’s status as a College alumnus.
Courant said that many universities tend to select presidents who have strong prior connections to the institution.
Among the 11 presidents who led Yale in the 20th century, only President James Angell, who was head of the university from 1921 to 1937, was neither an alumnus nor faculty member prior to his appointment. In contrast, the last time Brown appointed a former alumnus as president was with the presidency of Rev. Clarence Barbour in 1929. Among the last seven Dartmouth presidents, only Jim Yong Kim and James Freedman were neither a member of faculty at the College nor an alumnus. Similarly, of the seven presidents appointed to lead Princeton in the 20th century, all but one were members of the Princeton faculty, and six were alumni of the University. However, historical precedent at Princeton does not necessarily inform the current search process, according to Princeton Vice President and Secretary Robert Durkee.
“But that doesn’t tell you anything about who would be selected this time — it just tells you that those are the people who were selected in those searches,” Durkee said.
Among the Ivy League universities transitioning to new leadership, only Princeton has yet to conclude its presidential search process, with a recommendation to its board of trustees scheduled for late March or early April, according to Durkee.
Durkee said that the presidential appointments made by the other three Ivy League universities will have no impact on Princeton’s decision, and that its previous presidential appointments will have no bearing on the upcoming selection.
“We are going to conduct our own process,” Durkee said. “[The search committee] is going to go through the same kind of process that Yale and Dartmouth went through to try to figure out who is the right person for Princeton.”
Given that the trend seen across many research universities has been to appoint tenured faculty members with administrative experience, Bakemeier said that Princeton will likely follow the same path. Bakemeier said that as different Ivy League search committees look for administrators at top institutions to fill their vacant presidencies, they are likely to consider many of the same candidates.
“It’s hard to imagine that most of these searches wouldn’t be looking at many of the high ranking administrators at superb institutions like Michigan and [the University of California,] Berkeley and [the University of] Chicago and Princeton,” Bakemeier said. “It’s hard to imagine that a lot of people weren’t on a lot of lists.”
While universities frequently select presidents who have prior institutional ties — seen in both Yale’s recent appointment and Dartmouth’s selection of former College Provost James Wright in 1998 — high-level administrators from other top public and private universities are often sought after for the role of president, according to Courant. He said that administrators are more likely to transition from public to private universities, even though there is significant movement throughout the top institutions.
“The fiscal and political environment for public universities is pretty tough and has been for a while,” Courant said. “When good opportunities occur in private universities, those are attractive to many people in both private and public universities.”
Michigan has served as a springboard for a number of top administrators who assumed roles as university presidents in the Ivy League and other top universities. Former Michigan President Harold Shapiro became 18th president of Princeton in 1988. Lee Bollinger, who assumed the role of Michigan President after Shapiro, later became the 19th president of Columbia University in 2002. A year later, Dean of Michigan Law School Jeffrey Lehman was appointed the 11th president of Cornell University. After serving in various administrative capacities at Michigan since 2001, Hanlon is the latest Michigan administrator to head an Ivy League university.
All four former Michigan administrators assumed presidencies in their alma maters, which is not uncommon, according to Courant.
“In every one of these cases, the reasons are personal and idiosyncratic and have to do with the person in the job and with the job itself,” he said. “Having said that, public higher education has been under more stress than elite private higher education for the last decade or so, and I think that has some effect on what people do.”
Other former Michigan provosts who became university presidents in the last decade include Nancy Cantor, the 11th chancellor of Syracuse University, Bernard Machen, the 11th president of the University of Florida, and Teresa Sullivan, the eighth president of the University of Virginia. All three administrators currently serve as the heads of their respective institutions, but Cantor and Machen have both announced they will step down within the next several years.
Courant said that it is not surprising that many universities have recruited Michigan provosts to become presidents.
“In general, the provost of the University of Michigan is the chief academic officer and the chief budget officer of a very good and excellent academic institution,” Courant said. “I think that the things that Phil has learned here about teaching, research, effective governance and setting of priorities within the institution will serve him very well at Dartmouth and will serve Dartmouth well.”
Sullivan, who transitioned from Michigan provost to university president like Hanlon, said that an important part of the transition is an increased focus on raising funds. She praised Hanlon’s experience at Michigan in explaining budgetary priorities to his colleagues in a clear, patient manner.
“In the budget position, you’re nearly always saying ‘no’ to somebody, and usually saying no about something they really want to do,” Sullivan said. “Being able to say no and have people understand the reason — they may never agree with your reasons — but having them understand it is very important.”
Transitioning from a public to a private university, Hanlon will not have to contend with the Freedom of Information Act, to which Michigan is subject as a public institution, according to Sullivan.
Staff writer Lindsay Ellis contributed reporting to this article.
The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Yale University President-Elect Peter Salovey formerly served as provost of the University of Michigan.