Where Unqualified Means Qualified

In the not too distant past, Boards of Regents or Trustees who hired university presidents demanded that the candidate be qualified for the position. Typically, that meant the candidate possessed an earned terminal academic degree, rose through the ranks of the professoriate, and then rose through the ranks of university administration. A 30-year career in higher education – teaching, research, and administrative work – was the desired qualification to lead a university.

In recent years, the process for hiring university presidents has been reverting back to what it was 100 years ago*, when Boards of Regents or Trustees hired businesspeople or politicians with scant qualification to lead institutions of higher education. Boards of Regents or Trustees, often comprised of businesspeople and politicians, now prefer to hire in their own image, and possess the view that leading and managing are skills that transcend any industry and any endeavor. This view is at odds with how faculty comprehend the knowledge and skills necessary to perform a job successfully and how to lead an institution of higher education.

The very consideration of hiring of a businessperson or a politician with no terminal degree, no teaching experience, no research experience, and no higher education administration experience to lead a university immediately engenders distrust, animosity, and resentment among faculty and staff (especially faculty), who themselves must be qualified in order to be awarded their positions. Imagine this: Would an army of highly trained soldiers accept as their general someone whose entire previous experience was leading a software company or a civilian government agency? Would Catholic clergy accept a businessperson with no ecclesiastical experience – perhaps even an atheist – as their Pope?

Faculty can be upset for many other reasons. By dint of their professional development pathway, faculty are acculturated in the purpose and mission of higher education, which is the unfettered pursuit of knowledge and to educate the masses for the benefit of society. This view of the purpose and mission is not usually shared by businesspersons or politicians, who by dint of their professional development pathway, are acculturated in the purpose and mission of business or government. As a result, they are far more likely to invest money in athletic programs and establish their legacy by commissioning expensive new construction projects, in preference to building academic and research programs.

Public higher education, in particular, is likely to get into trouble when led by businesspersons or politicians-cum-businesspersons acculturated in the purpose and mission of business. Viewing such institutions as for-profit corporations will, over time, degrade their standing as public trusts through disinvestment and other actions to satisfy short-term interests or feed one’s ego. Of course, everyone recognizes that universities are an economic entity as well as educational entity, and that they must be financially successful in order to fulfill their purpose and mission. To that end, tuition must be substantially reduced so that it is accessible to low- and middle-income families.

The values and ideologies of business, in particular, clash with the values and ideologies of higher education. The clash is not comprehensive, but it is sufficient to ensure that newly appointed university leaders will soon make significant mistakes that will quickly erode confidence, while faculty will be closed-minded to opportunities to improve core activities such as teaching and research, as well as related administrative processes.

When I worked in industry, I obtained promotions into positions for which I was unqualified. And the people who reported to me knew it. Yet, I did not make the mistake that most college and university presidents from outside academia make. Instead, I was curious and took the time to learn the discipline and respect the purpose, mission, values, ideologies, and diverse people of the groups I led. I did not do this in a perfunctory manner, as most leaders do. Rather, I was sincere and did it to establish competence and credibility, after which I could propose changes to make people’s work easier and workplace better.

Fortunately, some unqualified university leaders take a similar path, but most, it seems, do not. So, the trend to hire the unqualified and pretend that they are qualified will continue until such time that the damage they have done becomes widely recognizable to the public and not just those in academia. Then, perhaps, qualified will once again mean qualified.

The next step is to assure that qualified leaders understand the need to improve processes – that faculty and staff are good people trapped in bad processes – rather than playing around with budgets and architectural plans. Costs go down and quality goes up when processes are improved.

* Reversion back to old and ineffective ways are mistakenly thought to be “progressive” because they see it as something new, when in fact it is ignorance of the history of past problems and the solutions devised to correct those problems – often albeit imperfectly. Unfortunately, solutions tend to remain static and are not improved over time, giving the appearance that they are no longer in step with the times.

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