Who are the people leading America’s colleges and universities?

According to the 2017 American College President Study, produced by the American Council on Education in partnership with the TIAA Institute, 72 is the average age of university presidents, 70 percent are men, and 17 percent are minorities. Given that a few years have gone by since that data was collected, the percentages may be slightly different today but not significantly.

In 2018, researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University reported that 40.5 percent of university presidents were considered nontraditional, in that they came to the job without ever having a tenure-track or tenured position in higher education, a figure that has been rising for years. The traditional path to a presidency is from professor to dean to provost.

In the following piece, Patricia E. Salkin, provost of the graduate and professional divisions of Touro College in New York, looks at another characteristic of college and university presidents: how many are attorneys, and what that means for higher education. This perspective is part of a multi-year study on lawyer presidents that the author is doing as part of a PhD in creativity at University of the Arts.

By Patricia E. Salkin

With continuous, rapid and accelerating changes in higher education, it is perhaps not a surprise that an increasing number of search committees and appointing boards are choosing lawyers to lead the hallowed halls of revered institutions of higher education.

In recent decades, lawyers have been tapped to run some of the country’s elite institutions. They include Yale University, Harvard University, Stanford University, Columbia University, Johns Hopkins University, Tufts University, Dartmouth College and Barnard College, as well as George Washington University, New York University and the universities of California, Chicago, Iowa, Virginia, Miami, Indiana and Florida.

The trend over the last three decades indicates that in the 2020s, we can expect to see a record number of lawyers appointed as college and university presidents. With roughly 4,000 colleges and universities, more lawyers in the mix is a good thing in the constant evolution of higher education.

The number of lawyer president appointments has more than doubled each decade of the last three, with a staggering 158 lawyers appointed in the last half of the 2010s. If the trend continues, in the new decade lawyers may account for 300 to 400 presidents — more than 10 percent of all sitting campus presidents. This is astonishing considering that for 90 years, from 1900 to 1989, lawyer presidents made up less than 1 percent of all presidents during any given decade.

The reasons are simple and relate to the complexities of running institutions of higher education that have become increasingly challenging.

Presidents are leaders of colleges and universities in all respects, supported by a team. Chief among that team is a provost, who is typically designated as the chief academic officer. With the provost handling the academic piece, presidents are increasingly being called upon to handle budgets, fundraising and business decisions.

Higher education now functions in a more highly regulated environment both by the government and by various accrediting bodies. Stakeholders have become increasingly litigious and preventive law strategies are in demand to deal with human resource issues, controversies that may test the protections of the First Amendment, privacy and intellectual property issues, and a suite of laws and regulations that have proved challenging on campus including the Americans With Disabilities Act and Title IX.

None of these challenges are expected to ease in the next decade. As some schools struggle to stay open and as others seek to develop new strategic partnerships, lawyers with mergers and acquisition skills may be in demand on some campuses.

Adding to the growing tally of legal issues confronting college campuses, the National Association of College and University Counsel (NACUA) lists, among other things, the following legal resource categories on their website for campus general counsel: accreditation, authorizations and the Higher Education Act; athletics and sports; campus police, safety and crisis management; compliance and risk management; discrimination, accommodation and diversity; ethics; governance; immigration and international activities; intellectual property; investigations; real property, facilities and construction; sexual misconduct and other campus violence; tax; and technology.

Another indicator that higher education has acknowledged the critical importance of the changing legal landscape is the rapid increase in the number of campus general counsel. By the 1960s, 50 campuses had an in-house legal or general counsel and today, NACUA membership includes more than 1,850 campuses and more than 5,000 lawyers. In fact, some of these campus counsels have found their way to the presidency.

Lawyers also serve as lay leaders on college boards of trustees, which select school leaders. The mere presence of lawyers permeating search committees and/or on the final decision-making board likely contributes to the wider acceptance of lawyers as viable presidential candidates.

The job of the college president today encompasses ensuring campus compliance with federal, state and local regulations; advocating in the public policy arena for desired and needed higher education reforms; and resource generation from the public, private and nonprofit sectors all tied to ensuring the economic sustainability of the institution.

Presidents have to be flexible to adapt to changing landscapes and they must be able to quickly assess opportunities and challenges. Lawyers tend to be comfortable navigating in these waters. They also bring creativity and problem-solving skills, political prowess, collaborative management approaches, preventive law strategies, and communication and negotiation skills, the ability to react quickly and strategically to the unexpected, and the ability to manage difficult personalities, honed from experience.

Some lawyer presidents have been tapped by up to three or more different institutions to serve as their leader, and one of them, E. Gordon Gee, has served the most institutions of any college president, having been appointed president seven times at five different schools: Brown University, Ohio State University, University of Colorado, Vanderbilt University and West Virginia University.

There are a fair number of lawyer presidents who have risen through the academy serving first as professors, with the majority in law. Some of these have served as law deans and a small number as provosts. As noted above, an increasing number have served as campus general counsel and compliance officers, and even vice presidents for institutional advancement and community engagement.

In the past it would have been unusual to find lawyers working in key senior leadership positions across the campus. Today, it is less of an anomaly and more widely accepted.

However, recently many of the lawyer presidents have come from outside of the academy, likely selected for their distinguished government background demonstrating desirable political acumen.

A growing number of lawyers with government backgrounds are well-known politicians having served as governors and mayors, but a larger subset of lawyers with government backgrounds have held high level appointments at the Department of Education, the Department of Justice and in the White House. A small number of lawyers ascending to the presidency entered the office and the academy at the same time solely with successful private-sector business experience.

Number of presidents with prior government experience

One important difference between the cohort of lawyer presidents and traditional presidents is that the lawyers bring significant work experience from outside the ivory tower.

The traditional path to the presidency involves an all-in investment and personal commitment to a career inside higher education. From masters to doctoral studies, to employment as “post-docs,” moving up the faculty promotional ladder and into departmental and then perhaps central administrative roles, the typical campus president has spent their entire career working in higher education. Lawyers, on the other hand, have a much different path to the academic life — even the ones who seek professorships at law schools.

The overwhelming majority of law professors are not hired for teaching jobs right out of law school. Law graduates seek judicial clerkships, employment with the government, nonprofits and the private sector. Professors are hired by law schools based in part on their work experience and what they can bring to the classroom and to the school as a result.

How might be the impact of a continued doubling in the number of lawyer presidents in the next decade change higher education? Certainly lawyers have been leaders in protecting and promoting fundamental values of our society just as institutions of higher education have been home to the marketplace of ideas that supported and pioneered work on civil rights, diversity and inclusion, and free speech.

Presidents are being called upon now more than ever to make the case in public that higher education is a viable and financially sound gateway to economic opportunity, satisfaction and personal growth and development for students, and that society as a whole benefit from an educated workforce and the laboratories of discovery that exist on college campuses.

Effective advocacy is a hallmark of lawyering skills. Lawyers who lead have experience in team building, collaboration, crisis communications and business decision-making that will serve their campuses well as president. It remains to be seen, however, how lawyer presidents will prioritize the demands of the workforce of the future with the long-standing desire of campuses to protect the traditional liberal arts and classics education.

The last decade has presented many challenges for campus leaders — the shame of admissions scandals, moral turpitude from sexual harassment crises, difficulties from discoveries of campus histories tied to slavery, act of racism, anti-Semitism and more — lawyers may increasingly offer a skill set that enables them to transparently bring together stakeholders to find creative and acceptable ways to move forward and to develop policies and best practices that not only protect but advance the valiant missions of our institutions of higher education.

As C-suites respond with differently trained and skilled leadership, time will tell whether the lawyers will create more sustainable paths in higher education.