Sept. 24 (Bloomberg) -- Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman’s retirement next June along with departures of the heads at Yale University and Dartmouth College mark a generational shift in leadership in the Ivy League.
The presidents are leaving in an era when applications across the eight private colleges are at their highest and admission rates are the most selective ever. They dealt with losses in their endowment values in 2009 following the global financial crisis, a Congressional inquiry over endowment spending and increased pressure on fundraising.
Now, the successors to Tilghman, Richard C. Levin at Yale and Jim Yong Kim at Dartmouth, as well as Brown’s newly installed President Christina Hull Paxson face new challenges over the cost of private colleges, surging student-loan debt and technological innovation that is changing the landscape for higher education.
“It’s a big moment,” said John Isaacson, an executive recruiter who has led searches for presidents at universities, including the current one at Dartmouth. “There is more opportunity to lead the world in eminent scholarship. These are the institutions that donors will turn to to solve the world’s large problems.”
The decrease in state funding at public universities will create a wider dichotomy with well-endowed schools like those in the Ivy League, Isaacson said.
Over the next decade, as colleges look for cost-efficient ways to deliver instruction, ventures in online courseware will mature, reshaping how universities view teaching. New leaders will need to guide their faculty through it and spend more time understanding how to meld it with traditional teaching methods, Isaacson said.
In recent months, top universities have announced steps into the world of free online courses. Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created EdX to put their courses on the Internet. Princeton, Stanford University, the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania in April said they would offer classes through Coursera.
Coursera, founded last year by two Stanford computer-science professors, puts university classes online, with the aim of educating millions of people globally for free. Princeton’s participation is “a grand experiment that may fail,” Tilghman said in a Sept. 12 interview at Bloomberg LP in New York.
“I honestly don’t know how this is going to turn out, and not just for Princeton but for higher education in general,” Tilghman said. “But I’m thrilled that were doing it.”
The pressure to move into online courses was partly responsible for the ouster and reinstatement of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan in June. Sullivan was forced out when some board members thought she wasn’t moving fast enough to join the online movement and was reappointed after protests from faculty and students. The Charlottesville-based university later said it was joining Coursera.
“The pressures of price and affordability are not new, but we need some innovative thinking about how we do our work, how we charge for our services and how we can control the rise in tuition and fees,” said Nannerl O. Keohane, former Duke University president and a member of the Harvard Corp., Harvard University’s governing body. “We also need new models for figuring out how we share financing with others who benefit from higher education in so many ways, including taxpayers and governments at all levels, as well as parents and generous donors.”
Attributes that will be in the minds of any search committee include the readiness to think in creative ways about online learning; the need for collaboration among institutions to save money and pool expertise; and the challenges of a global environment for higher education, said Keohane, now a visiting professor of public affairs at Princeton.
While interest in an Ivy League education has never been stronger, families and government leaders continue to question the increasing cost of private higher education. Educational debt has topped $1 trillion, which includes federal and private loans taken out by students and their parents.
Princeton’s endowment of $17.1 billion and Yale’s fund at $19.4 billion, valued as of June 2011, are among the largest in higher education. Harvard, with a $32 billion endowment, is the world’s richest college. The schools offer generous financial aid and have price tags approaching $60,000 annually, including tuition and fees, room and board, travel and other expenses.
Tilghman, 66, has led the Princeton, New Jersey-based university since 2001 after serving as a faculty member for 15 years. She said Sept. 22 that she will step down at the end of the current academic year in June 2013.
Levin, 65, said last month he will retire after leading New Haven, Connecticut-based Yale for 20 years, and Dartmouth is searching for a new president after Kim left the Hanover, New Hampshire-based school on July 1 to run the World Bank.
Tilghman appointed several women to prominent positions at Princeton and two have become presidents of Ivy League institutions. Economist Paxson, 52, became president of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, on July 1. She replaced Ruth Simmons, who led the school for more than a decade. Paxson was appointed by Tilghman to run the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton.
Tilghman’s former provost, Amy Gutmann, became president of the University of Pennsylvania in 2004.
The job searches aren’t confined to the Ivy League, with open presidencies and chancellorships at major research schools including the University of California, Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and the University of Wisconsin.
“There are a relatively small number of people who have the scholarly credentials and administrative experience to lead these great institutions,” said Lawrence Bacow, who led Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, for a decade before retiring last year.
“These are always difficult jobs but especially now when state and federal support for higher education is in jeopardy,” said Bacow, now president-in-residence at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and a member of the Harvard Corp.
The leaders who will fill the Ivy vacancies are likely to focus on issues related to technology, business models, cost containment and globalization, said Richard Chait, emeritus professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
“In every era, there are always going to be challenges and problems,” Chait said. “You can think back to an era in the ’60s when there was student unrest and demands for greater participation, racial integration of school and demands for relevance in the curriculum. Every generation will have these issues.”
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