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Margin Notes

The route to the university president’s office

Should it be open to professional fundraisers?


I recently read an article that introduced what was, to me, a rather unsettling thought: a university’s chief advancement officer becoming president of the institution. The article, talking about the U.S., notes that this sort of succession is still not commonplace, but it does happen and the trend may be accelerating.

The article, “Stepping Up,” appears in the February 2011 issue of Currents magazine, published by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, a professional association serving advancement professionals at educational institutions. (The article can be accessed here, but only if you’re a CASE member.)

I have nothing against university advancement officers. While it concerns me that universities in Canada seem to have to rely more and more on charitable giving, I know their advancement teams do important, honest, hard work. But should the head of the advancement team become the head of the university? I’m dubious.

The Currents article references a 2007 report on college presidents by the American Council on Education, which notes: “Presidents from all institution types cited rising pressures and expectations from all constituents that they secure ever more dollars in donations.” It then quotes one the report’s authors, Jacqueline King, who says some college presidents report spending up to half of their time in fundraising activities. Ergo, the article implies, the chief advancement office is a good fit for the president’s office.

In fact, that very point is made in the article by Jon Dellandrea, chancellor of Nipissing University and formerly chief advancement officer at the University of Toronto and the University of Oxford. “Because the chief advancement officer understands the business of relationships,” he says, “it’s pretty good preparation for the presidency.”

Call me a traditionalist, but I still believe the best preparation for the presidency of a university is a strong scholarly background and passage through the academic ranks. In that view, I’m onside with Amanda Goodall a visiting fellow at the Cass Business School in London and author of the aptly named book, Socrates in the Boardroom: Why research universities should be led by top scholars (2009, Princeton University Press).

In a recent article in World University News, she says the knowledge acquired through a career as an academic “provides the necessary wisdom to make the right decisions when that person becomes a leader.” She continues:

My research suggests that in specialist organizations, such as universities, experts, not managers, make the best leaders and that the performance of universities improves if they are led by presidents, vice-chancellors or rectors who are outstanding scholars.

Those views were seconded by Nassif Ghoussoub, a professor of mathematics and member of the board of governors at the University of British Columbia, in a recent blog post:

Postsecondary institutions need leaders who have a deep and firsthand understanding of the core mission of universities. Only good scholars can create the right conditions under which other researchers and teachers will thrive.

By the way, the vast majority of the presidents at Canada’s universities have taken the traditional route to the top. Of the 95 institutions that are members of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, there are perhaps two or three headed by individuals who do not have an academic background. Nearly all the presidents, save again perhaps two or three, have a PhD.

What’s your view?

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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