Presidential search interest in non-academic candidates raises concerns for some

Some say higher education institutions across the country are increasingly turning to nontraditional candidates.

Helen Sabrowsky

University of Minnesota leaders have mixed reactions to what they see as a trend of prioritizing nontraditional candidates in the search for a new University president.

Rather than seeking a candidate with expertise in higher education, some regents and some members of the presidential search committee have taken interest in individuals with a variety of backgrounds, such as business experts and politicians.

Nontraditional candidates tend to fall into three categories: politicians or former politicians, business executives or individuals with a background in more than one of those areas, said Regent Abdul Omari, who is chair of the search committee. A traditional candidate has an advanced degree, is a faculty member at a University, moves into an administrative role and then becomes president. 

The search’s emphasis on finding nontraditional candidates reflects national trends in higher education, Omari said.

“Across the higher [education] landscape, you see, while a slow trend … a trend of presidents who are being hired who are not academics,” Omari said.

Joseph Konstan, chair of the Faculty Consultative Committee, said he has heard a number of opinions from faculty on what they would like to see in the next president. Some faculty have said they want a president with a background in higher education, while others are open to a president from a nontraditional background, Konstan said.

“There are faculty who do not see any great wisdom in looking for somebody who doesn’t have substantial [higher education] leadership experience,” Konstan said. “There are other faculty who recognize that there may be some examples of business leaders who have the right background, expertise and attitude, where they have seen the value of what a great research University brings both in teaching and in research.”

Ian Ringgenberg, chair of the University Professional and Administrative Senate, said it was clear members of the Board of Regents wanted to recruit nontraditional candidates, and this has been a leading concern of the senate.

“A lot of employees are rightfully skeptical of what sort of message that sends to those of use who have dedicated our lives to education,” Ringgenberg said.

Konstan, who said he doesn’t think there is a trend to hire nontraditional candidates, said there is more mistrust of academia, which might lead some people to believe a nontraditional candidate with experience in the “real world” could be useful.

“Casting a wide net” when recruiting applications is a good strategy, Konstan said. 

Ringgenberg said the Senate believes finding a University president with a connection and commitment to higher education should be a top priority. 

“I’m sure we could have a nontraditional candidate that would be great and reflect the values [of the University], and I’m sure we could have traditional candidates who wouldn’t,” Ringgenberg said. “But I think whenever we see an eagerness to get a nontraditional candidate, it feels like that’s counter to those values.”

Correction: A previous version of the article mischaracterized University members’ preference for presidential candidates. Some regents and some members of the presidential search committee have taken interest in individuals with a variety of backgrounds. Some faculty have said they are open to a president from a nontraditional background.