In a story published Saturday, I profiled Christopher Nelson, president of St. John’s College in Annapolis and arguably one of the most influential college presidents in the nation.
Who are the others? And what makes a college president influential? In Nelson’s case, it seems to be a combination of factors: tenure on the job (he’s in his 20th year); stature of the institution (St. John’s, with its Great Books curriculum, is one of the best-known liberal arts schools); proven leadership (Nelson helped organize the Annapolis Group, an informal organization of liberal arts schools with similar missions and concerns); and visibility (Nelson speaks all over the country, making a case for the liberal arts at a time when many parents consider the sector impractical).
I asked a few industry sources to help me compile a modest list of other influential presidents — college leaders whose words and deeds resonate across the academy, start trends, move stock prices, get quoted and so forth. Here are a few of the names that came back. I’ll start with three local leaders.
Brit Kirwan, chancellor, University System of Maryland. The longtime University of Maryland president is quite visible in national conversations about collegiate athletics excesses and about raising college completion rates.
Patricia McGuire, Trinity Washington University. McGuire, too, has put in 20 years at her school, and she’s transformed Trinity into a model for the education of urban students of color. She’s put Trinity back on the map.
Freeman Hrabowski, president, University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Like Nelson, Hrabowski put in 20 years at UMBC, where he’s put the school into the front ranks of “up-and-comers” among public universities.
Drew Faust, president, Harvard. Harvard’s president will always wield influence. Faust is the first female Harvard president and is ranked among the world’s most powerful women. She’s credited with revitalizing the arts at Harvard.
Charles Reed, chancellor, California State University; Mark Yudof, president, University of California. Any move taken by the leaders, respectively, of the nation’s largest public research university system and state college system will shift the higher-education landscape. Reed and Yudof have used their positions to stir national debate about dwindling state support to public universities.
Douglas Bennett, president, Earlham College. Not particularly well-known to the general public, Bennett is a president’s president, enormously respected by fellow administrators for his views on collegiate learning, accountability and the very purpose of college admissions.
Eduardo Padron, president, Miami-Dade College. Probably the nation’s most celebrated community college president, Padron has set a standard both for enrolling and graduating minority students and for engaging with the diffuse community that is Miami-Dade County.
David Skorton, president, Cornell University. Skorton is one of the best-known of the big-league presidents, having come to Cornell from the presidency of the University of Iowa. His voice has influenced debate on research ethics and the role of the humanities in higher education.
Who else belongs on this list? Please toss out some names in the comment section.