Can business execs be good college presidents in the COVID-19 era?

Bruce Harreld’s background as a business executive made him an attractive option to lead the University of Iowa, at least in the opinion of its governing board, which thought his corporate experience would help him find new funding sources for the institution and help it grow. 

Yet faculty were skeptical of his limited time in academe, and some people believed the regents hand-picked him after some wooed him to apply behind the scenes. The selection process even earned censure from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) for its minimal faculty involvement. After Harreld’s hiring, the institution developed new presidential search standards and the AAUP removed the mark. 

Harreld’s tenure was similarly complex, marked by high turnover among senior administrators and moves to eliminate some student scholarships and funding for popular academic units.

Now, five years after taking the role and more than two years before his extended contract ends, Harreld is leaving the presidency. He did not cite a reason in his Oct. 1 announcement, though the university’s problems related to the public health crisis likely influenced the decision, the board’s president told local press. Harreld plans to stay on until his replacement is found.

The pandemic is challenging higher education’s governing model in an unparalleled fashion. Even leaders steeped in academia are having trouble adhering to the longstanding concept of shared governance, an often slow but highly consultative process that faculty and administrators use to collectively make major decisions. 

Nonacademic presidents, often hired to shake up the status quo and accustomed to the top-down mandates of industry, already sometimes had difficulty with shared governance. Governing boards looking to fill a top leadership seat may be inclined to look to them, however, amid the financial turbulence of the pandemic, the way the U of Iowa did with Harreld in 2015. Presidential jobs were getting hard to fill before the pandemic, and more positions are opening up.

Presidents from nontraditional backgrounds hired to lead institutions through the pandemic will need to be mindful of the governance structure, as the way they’re used to managing might not work in higher education, leadership experts say. 

But this type of president can find success during this tumultuous time, in part because of their nonacademic experiences.

“We can learn from each other,” said Barbara Snyder, president of the Association of American Universities, of which U of Iowa is a member. “I don’t care what the organization is, you really have to get buy in from a lot of stakeholders.”   

Outsider for the job

Sector headwinds have diminished college presidents’ average tenure from 8.5 years in 2006 to 6.5 years a decade later, according to the American Council on Education’s (ACE) latest American College President Study.

To help address those issues, particularly financial stability concerns, governing boards in the last few years have increasingly asked for at least one “nontraditional” contender in searches, said Rod McDavis, managing principal of AGB Search, which helps institutions find high-ranking executives. The share of presidents coming from outside academe has fluctuated between 14% and 20% since 2001, the earliest publicly available survey data.

Governing bodies perceive these candidates, who transition from the business world or the military, to have more experience fielding the types of crises afflicting higher ed these days — whether “rightly or wrongly,” McDavis said. 

Some nonacademics have performed well in these roles. McDavis referenced the popularity of University of Montana President Seth Bodnar, a former General Electric executive. 

Harreld too had some wins. The regent board applauded his accomplishments in a statement, noting a “significant” boost in research grants and increased graduation rates. He also oversaw a $1.2 billion, 50-year arrangement leasing the university’s utilities to a private company.

U of Iowa officials did not respond to Education Dive’s request for comment by publication time. 

Their appointments have also gone terribly wrong. A businessman and former president of Mount St. Mary’s University, in Maryland, left after he reportedly planned to cut low-performing first-year students before the institution reported its enrollment numbers to the federal government. He also abruptly fired two professors who were critical of him, one of whom had tenure, moves largely viewed as an affront to shared governance. The professors were reinstated following widespread pushback.

McDavis said he thinks nonacademics can be successful during the pandemic, citing the hypothetical example of an executive from a private technology company who could help an institution build out its tech offerings. 

Cassie Barnhardt, a higher education professor at the U of Iowa, largely declined to critique Harreld directly. But she said the concerns raised during his term were legitimate. Institutions, broadly, she said, should think of students and their tuition dollars as more than “numbers on a balance sheet,” and she encouraged them to develop a presence in regions beyond training and placing them in jobs.

A new president, in Barnhardt’s view, would tap experts within the university for those and other decisions, even if that leader “wasn’t sure what they were going to propose.”

But, she added, “It might involve giving up some control.” 

Fitting in

Presidents are being asked to make big decisions swiftly, and the sluggish pace of shared governance can complicate that. In addition to hastily shutting down campuses this spring, presidents needed to rapidly develop fall plans that accounted for an influx of online learning and addressed safety considerations meant to stymie the virus — often with limited budgets. Faculty didn’t always agree with their approaches, spawning no-confidence votes at several institutions.

McDavis acknowledged that nontraditional presidents who are used to unilateral decision-making might have a steeper learning curve, and he suggested an institution could bring in a “coach” familiar with shared governance mechanics to guide them. But, he added, their business experience could help them be agile during the crisis.

Harreld had thoughts about how his university should phase in a new president. Meeting with the regents earlier this month, he urged them to enact better succession planning, saying he wished he had someone to show him the ropes when he started. 

Presidents and chancellors already must balance the conflicting wishes of governing boards and others who want quick changes with those of faculty, who usually seek slower, deliberate discussions, said Philip Rogers, ACE’s senior vice president for learning and engagement. 

This dynamic has intensified during the pandemic, Rogers said. But any president can communicate and make effective decisions if they keep in mind institutional values. 

“An authentic style carries a kind of weight,” Rogers said.

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