Top university presidents follow similar trajectories
By Ester Cross, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Wednesday, January 9, 2013
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 follows its own specific criteria for selecting its leadership, there are marked similarities between the personal profiles of and professional paths of these administrators.
November’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 who has been at different schools.
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 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.
Association of Alumni President John Daukas ’84, however, challenged the idea that leaders from academia become the best college and university presidents, criticizing the College faculty for insisting that the pool of potential applicants for president be limited to members of academia.
“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.
Courant said that many universities tend to select presidents who have strong prior connections to the institution.
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. In contrast, the last time Brown appointed a former alumnus as president was with the presidency of Rev. Clarence Barbour in 1929.
Of 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 Princeton Vice President and Secretary Robert Durkee said.
Durkee said that the presidential appointments made by the other three Ivy League universities will have no impact on Princeton’s decision.
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 a lot of people weren’t on a lot of lists,” Bakemeier said.
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 also sought after for the role of president, according to Courant. Administrators are more likely to transition from public to private universities, 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 administrators who assumed president roles in the Ivy League and other top universities. Former Michigan President Harold Shapiro became the 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.
“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.”
Courant said that it is not surprising that many universities have recruited Michigan provosts to become presidents.
“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,” Courant said.
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.”
Staff writer Lindsay Ellis contributed reporting to this article.