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?

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7 Comments on “Who is the ideal university president?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    A herdsman of cats ?.

  2. anna notaro Says:

    if the question is posed like this ‘Who is the ideal university head?’ the temptation is to start drawing a long list of job requirenments in the dry language of any vacancy ad, besides most of us are aware that the ‘ideal’ anything is not very likely to be found anyway (sorry for the postmodernist cynicism creeping in there). Also, I think that it would be best not to leave the personality and character aspects out of the equation, it is in fact precisely the unique blend of the personal and the profesional that make the (almost) ideal president, I’d say🙂

  3. jfryar Says:

    Well, you wouldn’t put a car mechanic in charge of a Michelin star kitchen. The thought of a laywer being in charge of a research lab would keep me awake at night. So I think, on the whole, university presidents probably need to be academics simply because they’ve had years to operate in the environment, have seen what worked and what didn’t, and are familiar with the concerns and attitudes of academic staff.

    Where ‘non-academics’ could maybe play a more vital role than president is on advisory boards within the university structure.

  4. jfryar Says:

    That last sentence isn’t quite what I intended but you get the general point …


  5. If your basic point is that former politicians make good university presidents, I must remind you that Jackie Heally-Rae has announced his intention not to seek reelection🙂

  6. Than Says:

    I dont’ think that professional managers can trylly adapt to the academic culture and life. In most cases it is simply irrelavant. There might be of course some exceptions but they are few.
    On the other hand while the typical Vice Chancelor should be an academic the Chancellor can be from the industry and put some inflence it the university where the industry experience needed. Sir Wood in Robert Gordon is a very good example of it as you will see.


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