Globalizing the Academic Presidency: Competing for Talented Leadership

In general terms, the committee believes that it is essential for the national interest of the United States that it maintain its excellence and overall leadership in science and engineering (S&E) research and education so that it can maintain its advantage in global knowledge production. Talented people constitute a critical input in such a knowledge-driven economy. The strategy of the United States has been and is to draw substantially from international human resources. However, as other nations build up their own S&E infrastructures, there is increasing competition for these talented people (emphasis added).


In the US, shortages of nurses and doctors, especially in rural areas, are now common and likely to worsen in the years ahead. Evidence of the insufficient numbers of doctorates in engineering can be seen not only in the overall inadequate total awarded, but also the large percentage of PhDs earned by foreign-born persons, especially from China, India, South Korea, and Taiwan. “Coding camps” offered to children by short-handed IT companies confirm that American sources are not yet sufficient to meet existing demand for programmers.

Moreover, as more nations’ economies grow in sophistication, they too will vie with the US for talent by retaining more of the graduates from their own schools, colleges and universities as well as by competing on quality of life and other considerations to hire talent from abroad.

While by no means as robust a phenomenon as the foregoing, we may also be seeing competition for leadership of the very institutions generally acknowledged to be the envy of the rest of the world – America’s research universities. After all, if great universities are at least part of what has enabled the US to achieve so much in its comparatively short life, why not emulate the institutions ranked highest around the world? And how better to start than to import American leadership of universities, whether the presidents are American- or foreign-born but experienced in American academic institutions?

We gain a hint of this from what had been until recently a steady growth in the numbers of students seeking to attend American universities, earn advanced degrees, and remain in the US on faculties and as department chairs, deans, provosts and presidents.  Presidents of the 60 American member institutions of the American Association of Universities (AAU) – the most prestigious of all research-intensive universities – number 12 foreign-born persons among them, with representatives from China, Australia, India, Venezuela. To provide some perspective on that number, consider that the total number of women presidents whose universities are AAU members is 13 and two of those are also among the foreign born. Three of the AAU presidents are African American.

Among the AAU presidents are two who suggest just how mobile experienced presidents are and how much they are valued at least in part, it seems, for their experience in American universities. Jean-Lou Chameau, a Frenchman and Stanford alumnus, resigned the presidency of Cal Tech in order to lead King Abdullah University of Science & Technology in Saudi Arabia. And when Carnegie Mellon’s Subra Suresh, a native of India, resigned the presidency there to accept appointment as president of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, he was replaced on an interim basis by Provost Farnam Jahanian, who immigrated from Iran.

Another perspective on the globalization of university leadership may be observed in the TIMES HIGHER EDUCATION World University Rankings for 2017 for non-American institutions (25) among the 50 highest-ranked institutions and noting the international education and employment paths of their respective heads, thereby producing the following:

Oxford University Irish-born with graduate degrees from UCLA and Harvard

Imperial College London American-born, left presidency of Lehigh University 

London School of Economics Egyptian-born, American undergraduate, Oxford doctorate

University of Edinburgh German-born and worked at University of Texas and XERX Parc

Karolinska Institute Norwegian-born and educated

École Poly. Lausanne Master’s from Stanford and on faculty at Columbia and Berkeley

University of Melbourne postgraduate work at Berkeley and Harvard

University of British Columbia  on faculty at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Emory, UCL and president, University of Cincinnati

University of Illinois Wales-born, educated at UCL and on faculty at University of Colorado, Boulder, and University of Michigan

University of Hong Kong British-born

Australian National University born in US and earned degrees from University of Arizona and Harvard

Hong Kong School of Science Hong Kong-born, earned degrees from CalTech and Stanford, and & Technology faculty of CalTech, Yale and UCLA

Of the 25 non-American universities’ presidents, nearly half (12) have had extended periods of time being educated in or employed by institutions in a country other than their native country, and the US is by far the place where those stays were.

And this does not take into account American-prepared deans who are recruited to universities outside the US or, for that matter, the significant number of Indian academics who have become business deans at American universities such as Harvard, University of Chicago, University of Maryland or in the case of Dipak Jain, became dean at INSEAD in France after serving as dean of the Kellogg School at Northwestern.

The samples used here, AAU members and Times Higher Education Rankings, are relatively small. But these universities are usually acknowledged to be among the most prestigious institutions, and their recruitment of foreign nationals to prominent academic leadership positions may well signal the increased importance attached to international experience by universities, especially those who seek out presidents and other executive-level posts with American experience. If these institutions are prepared to make such choices, it seems safe to predict other, aspirational universities will likely follow suit.

A word of caution seems in order here. The current political and cultural “climate” in America includes a heavy dose of rancor among various groups about immigration, with one side arguing the nation has forsaken its own native-born and sought out immigrants to the expense of the former. Early evidence suggests that that viewpoint has already had the effect of deterring foreign nationals from seeking entry to the US to study and work and their numbers are lower than those of recent years.

The debate over immigration shows no signs of abating any time soon, so the flow of persons across national borders and into the US – for long a feature not just of America but even more so the nation’s universities – may well slow further. Were that to happen, the competition for talented leaders of academic institutions will shift as countries other than the United States seek the best institutional leadership, much of which –given the esteem American academics enjoy – will be for Americans and American-educated persons.


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