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In tough times, colleges turn to unconventional leaders

BY   December 25, 2015 at 2:25 PM EDT
Michael Sorrell, the former corporate securities lawyer and crisis manager named president of Paul Quinn College. (Photo: Paul Quinn College)

Michael Sorrell, the former corporate securities lawyer and crisis manager named president of Paul Quinn College. (Photo: Paul Quinn College)

When tiny Paul Quinn College faced its darkest hour, it turned not to a physicist or an historian or a political scientist to lead it forward. It named a corporate securities lawyer and crisis manager as its president.

The historically black college in Dallas, Texas, brought in Michael Sorrell in 2007 to turn around a school in such dire financial straits that it was on its way to losing accreditation. Eight years later, the unorthodox thinking that made Sorrell the hope of Paul Quinn’s board of trustees – and Sorrell understood that board because he had served on it – has turned the school around.

Trustees figured traditional leaders had brought Paul Quinn to its knees. Why not hand the reins to someone who had not spent a career in academia?

“When you have to go through a transformation like our school did, there are pros to bringing in someone from outside your industry,” said trustee Don Clevenger, who was appointed shortly after Sorrell was hired. “He brings more of a business attitude than would someone looking at it primarily from an educational perspective.”

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Financial pressures, growing public scrutiny and other problems are prompting colleges and universities to turn to new types of leaders who didn’t rise up the ranks as academics, as was the longstanding tradition. Instead, they’ve turned to politicians, lawyers, civil servants and even military officers.

Some of these unconventional presidents, in turn, are bringing with them new ideas and sudden changes that have jolted the slow-moving world of higher education — often to the ire of the people who inhabit that world.

The University of Iowa in September appointed a former IBM executive, J. Bruce Harreld, a specialist in corporate turnarounds, for example. In October, the University of North Carolina system hired former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings as president. She is scheduled to take office in March, but protesters angry over her corporate ties already are asking that she be fired. At least three schools — Mansfield University in Pennsylvania, Georgia Gwinnett College and Alabama’s Birmingham-Southern College — brought in former military officers as president, although two have since left.

Before this recent spate of nonacademic hirings, only about one in 10 U.S. college and university presidents came directly from a nonacademic job, according to 2012 figures from the American Council on Education.

That number is likely to rise, said Peter Eckel, who directs leadership programs at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. The country simply hasn’t done enough to prepare academics to lead colleges and universities, he said.

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“We’re seeing boards looking more seriously at a range of candidates,” Eckel said. “That’s partly because the pipeline is not real robust right now.”

On the one hand, new ways of thinking can reinvigorate a stagnant or troubled campus, as Sorrell did at Paul Quinn. On the other hand, those campuses can be powder kegs of self-interested constituencies, and outsiders sometimes encounter suspicion and outright hostility.

Take Harreld, whose hiring at Iowa was criticized immediately by faculty members who voiced concern that he did not understand higher education. The American Association of University Professors in December released a scathing report contending Harreld had been hired despite faculty concerns that he was dramatically unqualified for the role.

The experience illustrates the tricky balancing act characterizing college presidencies. Presidents must appease the trustees who hired them by attracting donations and academic notoriety, but also must inspire confidence among employees wary of dramatic changes.

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Despite coming to Paul Quinn with the intent to transform the school, Sorrell has managed to avoid major missteps. Concerned by the college’s tattered finances and falling enrollment, Sorrell disbanded the football team and turned the field into a farm in an attempt to turn around the “food desert” of Paul Quinn’s poverty-stricken surroundings, with students leading the farming, business plans and marketing. He hopes to turn the school into a model for how institutions can bring healthy food to poor neighborhoods.

The college, once down to its last few dollars after a trustee embezzled thousands from the school, has bounced back with large annual budget surpluses. And Sorrell, dismayed after his arrival by the pajamas and sweats worn by students, instituted a business casual dress code on campus.

In February, Sorrell announced a slew of other changes, including the addition of several new majors, cheaper textbooks and a “work college” model that will discount tuition for students who work on campus for two years and then at a participating company for the final two years.

The number of students at the Christian college has since rebounded, to 425, after plummetting from 550 in 2007 to about 150 in 2010.

A supportive board and staff is essential for innovation, Sorrell said.

“It would have been really easy for them to be skittish,” said Sorrell, who said he decided as an Oberlin

College undergraduate that he wanted to be a college president (although he also counts cabinet secretary and NBA team owner among his goals). “We proposed some pretty outlandish things. The farm was one of those things.”

It was pretty clear upon Sorrell’s arrival that faculty members were worried about the changes to come, said Clevenger, the Paul Quinn trustee. After all, this was a guy who had spent the past few years doing crisis management for NBA players, not roaming a college campus.

“I think early on they spoke different languages,” Clevenger said. “There was friction, as you might imagine. As he’s remade the school, that has been ironed over.”

Although skepticism about outsiders continues, there are some success stories.

The University of California, for example, struggled under state budget cuts when it brought in Janet Napolitano, a former Department of Homeland Security secretary and Arizona governor, in 2013 to lead the 10-campus system. Her political savvy as she butted heads with Gov. Jerry Brown has led to the restoration of some state money after years of budget cuts.

And former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, named president of Purdue in 2013, has mostly managed to avoid controversy even as he’s trimmed costs and pushed a new kind of financial-aid tool called income-share agreements that could replace loans for some students.

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Presidents from academic backgrounds are innovating, too, said Eckel and other education experts, and trying new strategies to attract students and donors during a particularly tumultuous time in higher education.

At Northern Arizona University and the University of Maine at Presque Isle, for example, seasoned administrators Rita Cheng and Linda Schott, respectively, have been willing to push the boundaries of competency-based education, which allows older students to use life experience to earn degrees.

“We’re at a turning point,” Eckel said. “There’s a lot of presidents who are saying, ‘This is the time to try new things.’ “Good boards are going to be supportive of innovation and allow presidents to take risks.”

Risks are the only way to fend off arguments about such things as high college costs and low success rates, Sorrell said, and sometimes an outsider is the best person to take them.

“I don’t know what’s not possible,” he said. “If I had come from higher education, I might have looked at Paul Quinn College and said, ‘This is impossible.’”

He said: “It’s not that I’m amazing. It’s just that no one else took the job.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.