2 Nontraditional Presidents Speak Out: 'Today's Environment Calls for a Different Kind of Leader'

February 26, 2012

Someone recently called me a "nontraditional traditionalist," because I have both a business background and a passion for high-quality education. Having spent 17 years in the business world and 20 years at academic institutions, I have a rather atypical perspective on the skills, experiences, strengths, and weaknesses that help determine the success of academic leaders. In fact, I believe that today's educational environment calls for a different kind of leader—one who is experienced in the world of higher education yet has strong business sensibilities.

Consider some of the issues that American higher education faces:

  • Predictions that higher education will be the next bubble to burst.
  • Questions about the return on investment of tuition dollars.
  • Suggestions that only the very wealthy will be able to afford private college in the future.
  • Budgets being slashed at many public universities.
  • Online courses becoming acceptable as a valid form of college education.
  • Potential donors being lost as the economy limps along and home values remain low.

Universities need proven leaders—whether from the traditional ranks or not—who can navigate economically turbulent waters, provide strong, consistent guidance, and ensure that their institutions deliver high-quality, high-value programs that truly meet the needs of their students. While acknowledging that it is critical to understand and maintain sensitivity to the academic process and faculty issues, I believe there are certain attributes that are equally important for a college president to be successful today:

Proven leadership experience. Presidents who are seasoned by a long history of leading people and organizations to success—in any field—are likely to bring traits that benefit colleges in today's difficult climate. These include open-mindedness, strong listening skills, integrity, levelheadedness, transparent communication, and trust in the talents and capabilities of others. This trust is particularly important in academia, where many accomplished people have earned the right to have a voice in the direction of the institution. Leaders who are inexperienced or less self-assured often struggle with shared control and the empowerment of others, and this, in turn, can lead to conflicts.

Ability to generate revenue. University leaders must have a strong record of successfully generating new revenue streams, growing endowments, identifying new markets, and creating and closing deals that bring much-needed funds to their institutions.

Customer-service experience. Although it's anathema in many circles to think about students as "customers," today's academic leaders must accept and embrace the practical reality of the matter that students (and tuition-payers) are customers in many ways. Students and their parents are making a tremendous investment, which, according to current expectations, allows them to view themselves as customers, and justifiably so. Thinking of students as our customers should not dilute the quality of education they receive, nor should it alleviate the expectation that they perform and act like students. Rigorous academics, strong codes of conduct, and outstanding customer service are not mutually exclusive.

Strategic-planning and fiscal-management skills. Academic leaders must be highly skilled in strategic planning and implementation, and must stay focused on the relationship between strategic priorities and fiscal decisions. Furthermore, those leaders who have broad fiscal-management experience will be more likely to balance the need for caution with the need to seize opportunities when appropriate.

Marketing savvy. There is sensitivity about the academic world becoming too businesslike, and this concern is understandable. But in the decades since the dawn of rankings, college guides, mass televising of intercollegiate games, blogs, and aggressive campaigns for visibility, there has been a significant increase in the pressure that institutions face to effectively manage their brands and build name recognition. Whether we believe it's good or bad, the competition for the best students and faculty is only increasing, and as such, presidents have an increasing responsibility to build awareness for their institutions.

Certainly, great academic leaders can come from a variety of backgrounds—both traditional and nontraditional—but business-based skills are integral to their success. American higher education is entering a phase of unprecedented innovation by necessity. Diversity in leadership can infuse academe with fresh ideas, approaches, and financial models that promise to enrich our learning environments, widen accessibility to education, and strengthen the college experiences of a new generation of students.

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James M. Danko, a former entrepreneur and dean at Villanova University and Dartmouth College, is president of Butler University.