Could Napolitano Be the Next Great University President?
American colleges and universities need more politicians leading them.
This may seem like heresy amid the onslaught of criticism that has come with the expected appointment of Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano to be the next president of the University of California. Her critics say she has few academic credentials.
Yet over the past forty years the college presidents who've made the greatest advances for their institutions have disproportionately been ex-politicians.
When former North Carolina Gov. Terry Sanford became the president of Duke University in 1969, the school was considered the best in the South. When he left 16 years later it had become one of America's great universities.
David Boren, a former senator and governor, was tapped 19 years ago to lead the University of Oklahoma. At the time, the running joke was that the school only wanted a library the football team could be proud of. Since then, Boren has turned it into one of the more respected public universities, making it an institution of academic excellence and producing both Rhodes Scholars and All-America football players.
When John Brademas, the Democratic whip in the U.S. House of Representatives was defeated in 1980, he became president of New York University. Under his 11-year tutelage, NYU went from being a decent regional school to a national research University.
Two Clinton administration alumni are following these models. Donna Shalala, the former secretary of Health and Human Services, is now well-regarded as the president of the University of Miami. She previously served as the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin. And Mark Gearan, who ran the Peace Corps for most of Bill Clinton's presidency, is the president of Hobart College in upstate New York, turning it from a good, but little noticed, school into one of the hottest small colleges in the country.
There's one good reason for these successes: Politicians and university leaders both need to be able to serve diverse constituencies -- students, faculty, alumni, contributors, foundations, local communities, sports boosters, medical centers and, in some instances, politicians -- that have little in common.
Napolitano, who had been the governor of Arizona before she moved into her current role heading the Department of Homeland Security, an agency with over 200,000 employees, seems well suited for the daunting challenges faced by the California system. Also prepared for a challenge is the new president of Purdue University, Mitch Daniels, the Republican ex-governor of Indiana.
After sorting through all the provosts, deans and presidents of smaller colleges and universities the next time a big school is looking for a new president, they might add a few politicians to the search list. The results could be promising.
(Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)