In Trust recently published an article titled “Promising Professor vs. Prominent Pastor,” which pointed out that most theological schools hire CEOs who have moved up through the faculty ranks, while a third hire CEOs from leadership positions in their denomination or from the business world.

Seminary leaders interviewed for the article stressed that presidents from nontraditional backgrounds must learn to understand the academic culture and work collegially with faculty.

Trusteeship magazine (the publication of the Association of Governing Boards) recently published an article on the same topic. “Nontraditional Presidents: A New Wave of Enterprise Leadership” highlights a trend in secular higher education of hiring nontraditional presidents at institutions that may be facing declining enrollments and financial challenges. These presidents often come from the business sector without academic credentials or experience.

The Trusteeship article stresses that “enterprise leadership” may require difficult decisions to initiate layoffs, reconfigure staff duties, and reallocate financial resources. Values that underpin the academy, such as shared governance, may make it difficult to lead in new directions. But nontraditional presidents can succeed if they understand five characteristics of the academy: academic freedom; tenure; shared governance; faculty skepticism and distrust of authority; and disruptive faculty members who may “go to extremes” to express opinions. Mistakes that boards and presidents may make include relying too heavily on faculty input, on one hand, or excluding faculty altogether, on the other (assuming that faculty will oppose any change). 

The art of enterprise leadership comes down to working within the academic culture to initiate change. The article advises presidents and board members to “communicate early and often at board meetings in campus-wide forums and through governance bodies. Be candid in presenting and discussing the challenges facing the institution. Listen carefully to the attitudes and voices of faculty, staff, and students for the wisdom they may offer and as a sign of respect.” However, the article asserts that “collegial communication alone will seldom substitute for courageous leadership.”

Read Trusteeship’s Nontraditional Presidents: A New Wave of Enterprise Leadership” and In Trust’sPromising Professor vs. Prominent Pastor.” And afterward, let us know your thoughts on what background and experience presidents should have, and how presidents coming from business backgrounds can effectively lead an institution of higher education.