Who is the ideal university president?
As most readers of this blog will know, I was until last July President of Dublin City University, and from late March of this year will be Principal of Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, Scotland. If you were to see my curriculum vitae, it would look fairly typical for a university head. I am, as most would be, a career academic who has also had some outside roles and interests. Of course the president’s personality and character play a vital role in how well they can do the job, but let’s leave that aside and just look at background. Should universities always be led by academics, or are there other options?
On the whole – and I won’t get into any trouble here by naming anyone – non-academic presidents have had mixed reviews. Many of them find the particular university atmosphere and culture hard to adapt to and don’t last long. Some have found it hard to overcome the initial scepticism of academics, and some have quickly become impatient with the rituals of university decision-making.
However, some do make something of the job. An interesting example is the President of the University of Colorado at Boulder, an institution with a very significant international reputation. In 2008 the university board appointed Bruce D. Benson, a businessman from the oil industry, to be its new president. Not only did he come from the business community, he was also an activist in the Republican Party. But since his appointment he has shown sensitivity to academic traditions, while being a robust fighter for the university’s interests, including fights with his former Republican allies over state funding. Initial faculty hostility has gradually been overcome.
Is a non-academic, successful university president the exception that proves the rule, or is there a possibility for greater diversity of backgrounds for this post? Who is the ideal university head?