A half-century after Apollo 11 blasted into history, the Engineer has landed — atop American higher education. And the University of Texas at Austin is at the forefront of the trend.
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A new study reveals that the top floor of the ivory tower, once the near-exclusive domain of clergymen, lawyers and humanities scholars, now houses an unprecedented number of chief executives trained in engineering and closely related STEM fields.
According to the study, engineers preside over 44 — or nearly 15 percent — of the 300 institutions that made U.S. News & World Report’s 2019 ranking of “best national universities.” An additional 72 institutions on the U.S. News list are led by administrators who earned their highest degrees in other disciplines that the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics classifies as STEM fields — areas such as physics, mathematics, and computer science
If those statistics don't rattle higher education traditionalists, another of the study’s findings might: More schools on the U.S. News list are overseen by engineers than by anthropologists, communication theorists, economists, English scholars, geographers, historians, linguists, philosophers, sociologists, and theologians — combined.
The largely unheralded spike in presidential engineers — or, if you prefer, engineering presidents — is particularly striking when viewed against the backdrop of history. To put the figures in context, the authors of the study also analyzed the academic backgrounds of the individuals who were leading those same top-tier universities 25 years ago and 50 years ago, respectively. (When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon, for example, a chemist, Norman Hackerman, was at the helm of UT Austin.)
The resulting numbers point toward an unmistakable — and potentially disruptive — transformation of higher education leadership.