Do Professors Make Good Administrators?

A professor and university students in a lecture hall (Clerkenwell/Reuters)

It’s very rare for a college or university to hire a president or other high administrator who hasn’t been a lifelong academic. (The most notable exception at the present is Mitch Daniels at Purdue.)  How does that affect the quality of personnel at the top?

In today’s Martin Center article, Steven Zhou argues that it adversely affects quality.

Zhou writes, “Why, then, do we expect people who excel at being an academic to turn around later in their careers and lead the ‘business’ side of the institution? It seems like quite the bait-and-switch: faculty are hired for their skills in research and/or teaching, only to be expected later to shift gears entirely and employ a completely different set of skills — ones that they may not actually possess — in leading the institution (aka academic administration).”

He suggests that one reason why higher education has been losing its value proposition is that so many academic leaders are not good at making long-run decisions for the health of their institutions. I think he’s right and would point to the widespread inability to protect the integrity of the curriculum in the face of faculty desires to teach whatever they find interesting.

Zhou concludes, “Being an academic leader and administrator is extremely difficult, and not a lot of people want that kind of job. Sadly, the system we have set up now in higher education seems to recruit for such positions from a pool of candidates that have not been trained or thus far incentivized to develop the skills necessary for academic leadership. As academia faces a tough season in the decades to come — with the rise of alternative education options, crises in financial aid, and devaluation of the college degree — there is more need than ever before to hire the right leaders with the right experiences and the right skill sets.”

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.