Class Notes; With academia changing, colleges see advantages in nontraditional chiefs.
There is Douglas J. Bennet Jr., best known for running National Public Radio from 1983 to 1993, who was named president of Wesleyan University in Connecticut this month. There is M. Peter McPherson, a former banker and lawyer who in October 1993 became president of Michigan State University. There is David L. Boren, who last year left the United States Senate to become president of the University of Oklahoma.
It's not that corporate tycoons and professional managers are displacing classicists and zoologists en masse as university presidents. But increasingly, as the demands on university presidents center on raising money, restructuring and political savvy rather than traditional academic pursuits, universities are considering less traditional candidates for the pressure-cooker job of university president.
"As issues of finance loom larger, as they become questions of survival for many institutions, I think you're going to see more and more of it," said Benno Schmidt, who went in the opposite direction, leaving the presidency of Yale in 1992 after a tenure marked by financial stress to become president of the Edison Group, the venture into for-profit schools by Christopher Whittle, the news media entrepreneur.
About 1 in 10 college presidents comes from a nontraditional background, and one is Arthur Taylor, the former president of CBS, founder of what is now the Arts and Entertainment Channel, and the former head of his own investment firm. He has been president of Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., since August 1992.
"Dr. Deming used to say that in academic pursuits the most important thing was to get the speed, the r.p.m.'s, of the institution moving at a much more rapid rate," Mr. Taylor said, referring to his longtime friend, the late management theorist W. Edwards Deming. "Most places literally ground down to the pace of a turtle, and that's what I found here. Now, we may not be going at the speed of a Ferrari, but at least we're going at the safe speed of a Camaro."
Mr. Taylor, 59, came to Muhlenberg after seven years at Fordham University, where he was dean of the graduate school of business, which gave him some academic experience but not the customary career path of professor to dean to provost or vice president to president. His experience at Muhlenberg is a good example of the promise and potential pitfalls of taking a nontraditional background to academia.
Muhlenberg, founded in 1848, has been one of dozens of small liberal arts colleges in the Northeast that find themselves scrambling to compete for a smaller, more cost-conscious pool of applicants. Mr. Taylor was not the first to bring a sense of urgency. His predecessor, Jonathan Messerli, embarked on an ambitious building campaign and talked repeatedly of lifting Muhlenberg into the ranks of the nation's top 50 private liberal arts colleges.
Almost everyone agrees that Mr. Taylor has been a jolt of adrenaline -- too much of a hands-on micromanager for some faculty members -- who has cleaned house in some administrative areas, pushed the college toward more aggressive job counseling and placement, helped tie faculty pay to teaching and preached a more aggressive market-oriented gospel of catering to student needs.
"When I got here," he said, "I was alarmed at how slowly Muhlenberg was moving and how much it had to move out of its niche. Colleges like Muhlenberg have to make sure they don't run out of time."
Mr. Taylor's style is a little abrasive for some at Muhlenberg, but most faculty members give him high marks. The number of students applying in the past two years was the second and third largest in the university's history; SAT scores are up; the budget is balanced, and deferred maintenance costs -- the bane of many aging campuses -- are almost nil.
Mr. Taylor does not get all the credit, but many at Muhlenberg say he deserves a chunk of it.
"I've been here under three Presidents," said James Bloom, who teaches English and American studies, "and he's the most dynamic and aware of the problems in higher education by far. Coming from a corporate background probably helped him break out of an ivory tower parochialism, and in the past this has been a pretty parochial place."
Still, Mr. Taylor would be the first to say that success in business does not insure success in academia. He noted that much of his background came in "creative" businesses more compatible with academia than industry.
"To succeed," he said, "you have to be sensitive to the academic culture, which is similar to the culture of the creative businesses but is not similar to the assembly line."
And the management style of business can be a disaster in a university setting. Thus, for example, David T. McLaughlin had a strong Dartmouth College background plus experience as chairman of the Toro Corporation when he became Dartmouth's president in 1981. But despite achievements that included doubling the college's endowment, he left in 1986 after running afoul of faculty members who complained that he ran the college like a corporation.
Indeed, Dr. Schmidt, the former Yale leader, says the bottom line may be that while academia often does not provide the business background needed to run a university, business often does not provide the skills needed to deal with a university faculty and issues like academic freedom.
"The problem," said Dr. Schmidt, who had his share of run-ins with the faculty at Yale, "is there are very, very few jobs that involve the range of problems and responsibilities a university president faces. There can be grave limitations in a purely academic background, but the truth is almost any background you could think of is inadequate."