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Tips and Trends in Academic Employment – Part 2

In accordance with our last blog, the following is Part 2 of the subject:

Terminal Degrees Other Than a Ph.D.

Another significant trend, notable in the past few years, is that, increasingly, college and university presidents do not absolutely need to have a Ph.D. in order to be appointed to the top job. This is true even at traditional liberal arts colleges and other institutions where even ten years ago such a degree usually would have been a threshold prerequisite for the position.

While it is still true that most college and university presidents do possess a doctorate in the arts or sciences, that type of “Terminal Degree” is no longer a given. There now are a number of presidents whose terminal degree is a law degree, a medical degree or even a business degree, as top-notch administrative experience is a principal focus of hiring searches.

For example, one of our clients, a successful sitting president of a substantial university, has a law degree rather than a Ph.D., and he previously oversaw a 30,000-employee unit of the United States Defense Department.

This shift is not only true of large universities with a meaningfully greater cohort of employees. At smaller schools, which offer a more traditional liberal arts education to a relatively small body of undergraduate students, it would, until recently, have been virtually unthinkable to hire a president whose terminal degree was anything other than a Ph.D. Today more than one of these colleges are headed by presidents with a professional degree in law or medicine.

In part, this change may be prompted by the increasing need for pure management skills (and experience) by presidents in higher education. For a president confronted by a faculty wanting to unionize or any one of the many other “public” issues which commonly make their way to the desk of a college and university president in 2023, knowing something about employment law and negotiation could be an asset.

This shift also recognizes the reality that a substantial part of any modern president’s time will be taken up by “Development” (i.e., fundraising). Here, too, the requisite skills for that task can be but are not necessarily implicated by academic preparation for a life of scholarship.

The “bottom line” is the recognition that there are diverse paths to academic leadership, and that a great college president may have written a dissertation on Zola or advanced mathematics, but he or she may also come from a professional background.

In our next issue of these perspectives, trends and tips, I will address some issues of compensation relating to college and university presidents and heads of independent schools.

About the Author

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George Birnbaum

Since 1980, sophisticated business people have relied on George to apply the meticulous preparation, attention to detail, and devotion to his clients he learned from fabled trial lawyer Louis Nizer. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, George has over 35 years of distinguished deal-making, litigation, mediation and arbitration experience which he has used to negotiate high-stakes agreements for senior executives and select business clients throughout the United States.