By Tom Still

MADISON – At the University of Colorado in Boulder, which is akin to UW-Madison with a mountain view, many faculty and students are aghast over the state Board of Regents’ selection this month of a businessman with no academic credentials as the president of the three-campus university system.

An op-ed column in the New York Times captured the indignation: “Bruce Benson is an oilman, Republican activist, failed candidate for governor, co-chairman of Mitt Romney’s (now ended) campaign, successful fund raiser, donor to the university, former chairman of the Metropolitan State College Denver Board and chair of a blue-ribbon panel on higher education. Obviously he has a strong interest in education, but his highest degree is a B.A., and he has never been a member of a faculty or engaged in research or published papers in a learned journal. In short, he is no way an academic, and yet he is about become the president of an academic institution, and not any old institution, but a state university ranked 11th among public universities and 34th among universities overall.”

Colorado’s university system also ranks 48th among the 50 states in public support from state government, which suggests the traditional path of hiring an academic to manage an academic institution has done little to inspire confidence among that state’s policymakers and voters. The Colorado Board of Regents decided it was time to change course.

As the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents prepares to search for UW-Madison Chancellor John Wiley’s successor, the University of Colorado experience – as well as similar hiring decisions in West Virginia, Missouri and Georgia – raises this question: Does an institution that spends more than $2 billion per year need a manager or an academic at the helm?
At West Virginia University, President Mike Garrison came to his job with a law degree but no master’s or doctoral degree. His appointment has been controversial from the start; like Benson in Colorado, he was vehemently opposed by the Faculty Senate and remains under fire.

In Missouri this month, former telecommunications executive Gary Forsee became president of the four-campus University of Missouri System. The chairman and CEO of Sprint Nextel for four years, Forsee holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering and an honorary doctorate. The debate over his appointment was vitriolic at times, mainly because Forsee wasn’t perceived as an academic.

At the University System of Georgia, long-time Wisconsin resident Erroll Davis Jr. is responsible for the state’s 35 public colleges and universities, 260,000 students, 39,000 faculty and staff, and an annual budget of $5.7 billion. Chancellor Davis holds an MBA, but it was his credentials as a business leader that won over regents in Georgia. Davis is the first non-academic to hold that post.

The presence of pinstriped suits inside the nation’s ivy-covered halls is not entirely new. Terry Sanford, a former North Carolina governor who was president of Duke University from 1969 to 1985, is generally considered one of Duke’s greatest presidents. Sanford held a law degree from the University of North Carolina, but no “Ph.D.” after his name. By the way, it was during Sanford’s tenure that North Carolina’s Research Triangle truly began to blossom.

Go back even further in time and there was a fellow named Dwight D. Eisenhower who served as president of Columbia University in New York, and all he ever did to qualify for the job was help win a world war.

University faculty often look upon their institutions and its managers much like a guild; only those who paid the apprentice and journeyman dues are allowed to rise to the top. While that model worked for centuries, there is reason to ask whether it still applies in an era when universities are being called into public account. Given the near-certain opposition within “the guild,” the next UW-Madison chancellor probably won’t be a business leader. But if ever there was a time for the UW Regents to think broadly about the nature of modern academic leadership, it’s now.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.