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INSIGHT: Your Next College President May Be the GC Next Door

July 7, 2020, 8:00 AM

Search committees seeking their next campus president should not discount the value of a campus general counsel given the proliferation of statutory requirements, regulatory regimes, legal claims and risks, not to mention the current challenges presented with campus responses to Covid-19 and racism.

Over the last 20 years the number of former general counsel leading colleges and universities has increased seven-fold, and more than half of that number took the top job in the last five years. Between 2010 and 2019 there were roughly 200 lawyer presidents and former general counsel accounted for almost 20%.

A 2019 report from the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Successful President of Tomorrow: The Five Skills Future Leaders Will Need, posits that presidents of the future must be people “who will make difficult, data-driven decisions…an innovator and risk-taker who will reinvent the business model while staying true to institutional mission.” The report emphasizes that schools will, “…require an expert communicator—someone who can make the case for change, calm the campus culture wars, and convince the public that college is indeed worth it.”

Lawyers Have the Qualifications

The report offers the following five essential skills distilled from interviews with more than three dozen presidents and leadership experts: analyzing the business; innovating; building relationships; careful communicating; and managing a crisis These are all core skills that successful lawyers possess.

Law schools are increasingly offering courses in leadership, finance and management, and lawyers acquire on the job training businesses experience. Most lawyers work in solo or small law firms where they are the managing partners and/or firm owners. They must run all aspects of the operation from business development (not unlike enrollment, branding and resource development) to human resource management (e.g., hiring and firing, payroll and accommodations).

In 2012 almost 10% of the Fortune 500 CEOs held JDs. Forbes reported in 2019 that of the Fortune 100 CEOs who held graduate degrees 16% had earned law degrees. Higher education is a business and lawyers possessing business acumen who also understand and can be true to an academic institutions culture and mission represent perhaps the fastest growing cohort of campus leaders.

The emergence of the office of general counsel in higher education is a relatively modern development. The earliest college counsel’s office can be traced to the University of Alabama in 1925. By the 1960s there were 50 in-house general counsel. Today the National Association of College and University Attorneys (NACUA) membership includes more than 1,850 campuses and more than 5,000 lawyers.

Without doubt this dramatic increase was fueled by the social, political, and cultural disruption of the 1960s and 1970s. In those turbulent times which many observers compare to our current circumstances, higher education was both deeply involved and dramatically affected by transformational legal change brought by courts, legislators, and regulatory bodies.

Legal Talent Is Valuable

Legal talent is not a requirement for an academic president. Yet is doesn’t hurt and it certainly can help. The increasing number of lawyers assuming the top campus leadership position is not likely to slow down.

First, the intensity of the regulatory environment generates dozens of constantly evolving federal, state and local laws as well as agency rulemaking. This poses complex compliance challenges for myriad everyday campus business issues.

Second, in a litigious society, higher education has become both the subject and the target of investigations, enforcement actions, and high visibility cases. Dealing with longstanding controversial legal issues such as affirmative action, free speech, tenure and academic discipline has long been part of the job.

The legal and economic challenges surrounding the impacts of Covid-19 for higher education (e.g., health and safety and class action lawsuits), combined with growing significant issues involving constitutional free speech, racism, civil rights and diversity and inclusion, demand skilled leaders who have the educational and practical training to effectively respond to these issues.

If not properly managed, any of these issues could overwhelm and have serious consequences for an institution’s educational mission. Indeed, at least one scholar even recommends law-related training and education for faculty and academic administrators.

The legal demands facing higher education pose serious threats that can tear the fabric of an academic community, and severely damage the reputation and sustainability of campuses. This is driven by increasing consumer-driven expectations of students and their parents, increasing transparency, a perception that higher education has deep pockets, and sadly growing skepticism about the value of higher education.

Swift, decisive, and legally-grounded responses are often required within hours of issues arising thanks to the internet and social media which are unforgiving for those who delay. Lawyers must be exceptional communicators to frame their cases to jurors and judges, to speak with clients and witnesses, and to work collaboratively with stakeholders who see things from different perspectives, much akin to the style of communication skills demanded of campus leaders.

Search committees should not overlook lawyer candidates as they cast their nets to recruit the best match to meet the needs of their campus community. Not every lawyer has what it takes to serve as president, but many including college and university general counsel may just be the right leader at the right time.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information

Patricia Salkin is provost of the graduate and professional divisions of Touro College. This piece is part of her larger PhD (creativity) study on lawyer presidents at the University of the Arts.

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