Universities look outside academia for new leaders

Associated Press

GAINESVILLE — When four Florida universities began searching for new presidents all wanted a visionary to lead them into the 21st century and raise their profiles. While the University of Florida picked a leader with 28 years experience in higher education, the others opted for people with political clout.

Florida State University turned to former Florida House Speaker T.K. Wetherell. Florida Atlantic University picked Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan. University of North Florida grabbed Jacksonville Mayor John Delaney.

The hirings underscore a growing trend at American colleges and universities. Business executives and politicians are being favored over candidates with higher education experience or a scholarly background, the traditional prerequisites.

The sluggish economy and tight state budgets have put a financial squeeze on many universities. With endowments and money from state capitols shrinking, many are turning to leaders who can be effective lobbyists or good at managing expenses.

“Having the education background is important, but if you cannot navigate the political waters in today’s world, it is going to be very difficult to be a successful president,” said Wetherell, who replaced Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte earlier this year at Florida State.

According to the American Council on Education in Washington, 15 percent of college presidents had backgrounds outside of higher education in 2001 compared with 10 percent in 1986. About 10 percent of the presidents from doctorate granting universities were from outside academia.

University presidents from outside academia include: former U.S. Ambassador Richard Celeste of Colorado College, former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers of Harvard University, former U.S. Sen. David Boren of University of Oklahoma and former U.S. Ambassador John K. Menzies of Graceland UniversityColleges and universities are seeing their presidents more as corporate chief executives whose focus is on money, said Sheldon Steinbach, vice president and general counsel for the American Council on Education, a nonprofit group that serves as a lobbyist for colleges and universities.

“There was obviously a calculated decision that as the institutions move forward in this decade that somebody with political acumen can have significant experience in what the number one role of college presidents is these days, mainly fund-raising,” Steinbach said.

Wetherell, FAU’s Brogan and North Florida’s Delaney are friends of Gov. Jeb Bush and have supporters in the Republican-controlled Legislature. Their connections could maximize funding from the Legislature at a time of increasing enrollments and tight state budgets.

Lawmakers cut university budgets by $40 million last year, prompting the schools to come up with some creative solutions to get by. For the 2004-05 school year, public university presidents are asking for $2 billion, an 8 percent increase, or $157 million more than last year’s budget.

Florida has a record of using politically powerful people to lead its universities.

D’Alemberte, a lawyer, had earlier served as the dean of the FSU law school and a state legislator before returning as president. Marshall Criser, a lawyer, served as UF president. Betty Castor was Florida’s commissioner of education from 1987 to 1993 before becoming president at the University of South Florida

Wetherell bristles when asked if his political connections got him the top job at FSU. He points to his academic credentials: a doctorate in educational administration and former president of Tallahassee Community College.

The selection of politicians has been criticized by faculty and others. They argue that someone with academic credentials is needed to strengthen degree programs, boost a school’s reputation, attract scholars and win respect.

Both Delaney and Brogan were selected over Gary Krahenbuhl, deputy provost at Arizona State University, who was a candidate for both the FAU and UNF jobs.

“I think in each case the boards’ decisions reflected on how their see their universities and the role of the presidency,” Krahenbuhl said. “That is to say, they view their universities as being state agencies and they believe the success of failure of the universities they oversee will be highly dependent on legislative support.”

Brogan, who was appointed in February by FAU after his re-election to a second term as Florida’s lieutenant governor, was criticized by some faculty members because he doesn’t have a doctorate and has never taught at the university level.

Brogan holds a master’s degree in education from FAU, was a fifth-grade teacher, dean of students, principal and superintendent of Martin County Schools before becoming Florida’s education commissioner in 1994.

The same criticism was aimed at Delaney, the two-term Jacksonville mayor who took over the reins of UNF in July. Delaney has a law degree from the University of Florida. Trustees debated whether the university would be best served by choosing an academic or someone with leadership and political skills.

Among the assets Delaney says he brings to the job are his management ability, his knowledge of Florida politics, an understanding of the region and community and the ability to articulate a vision.

“Marshall Criser and Betty Castor clearly helped their schools. They made progress even though they were nonacademics,” Delaney said.