Maybe University Presidents Aren’t All That Important

Mark Kennedy addresses people after being selected as the next President of the University of North Dakota Tuesday at the Gorecki alumni center. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald

It’s remarkable how much time and treasure we invest into hiring presidents for our public universities.

We have learned in recent weeks that University of North Dakota President Mark Kennedy is job hunting. He will interview for a gig at the University of Central Florida this week. He was hired at UND not quite two years ago after a job search that cost taxpayers nearly $140,000.

That was at the high end in terms of the cost of recent searches for leadership in the North Dakota University System, but as you can see from this list of the UND search as well as the give previous it’s something we spend a lot of money on:

  • UND, 2016 – $139,907
  • North Dakota University System chancellor, 2015 – $83,943
  • Dickinson State University, 2015 – $85,221
  • Valley City State University, 2014 – $82,078
  • Minot State University, 2013 – $87,759
  • Lake Region State College, 2012 – $78,962

The cost of these searches speaks to the sky-high expectations of those who ultimately get hired.

It also smacks of magical thinking.

Higher education costs, both to taxpayers and debt-burdened students, are so ridiculously inflated even well meaning adults have a tendency to elevate these institutions and those who lead them into almost mystical status. We pay silly sums of money to lure bureaucrats from around the country to lead our universities, and then we pay them absurd salaries.

…as much as the university bureaucrats like to shroud themselves in mystique, positing that we lowly peasants outside the academy can’t possibly understand the complicated alchemy of post-secondary education, the truth is it’s not that complicated.

Once on the job university presidents are always promising “visionary leadership” for their institutions and come off sounding like the politicians who are forever promising change even as things stay about the same as ever.

We’d be better served by a more prosaic approach. Because as much as the university bureaucrats like to shroud themselves in mystique, positing that we lowly peasants outside the academy can’t possibly understand the complicated alchemy of post-secondary education, the truth is it’s not that complicated.

All that myth-making has a lot to do with justifying the aforementioned cost bloat that’s rampant in higher ed.

We need to stop spending huge sums of money on national searches for candidates to lead our universities. All that buys us are big, difficult egos.

We need to stop pretending like university presidents are anything more than upper management.

That is anathema to the magical thinkers who buy into the mystique of higher education, I know, but what has their approach got us? Skyrocketing higher education costs while the economic value of degrees stagnate?

We should be weary of higher education policy based on glorifying the institutions, up to and including overpaying for university leadership (including sports leaders, by the way).

We should be anxious for policy which puts the focus back on a utilitarian goal of helping students find prosperity through education.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and the host of the Rob (Re)Port on Fargo-based WDAY AM970 from noon-2pm weekdays.

Related posts

Top