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From the Classroom to the Presidency: Legal Educators Tapped to Run the Campus

Patricia E. Salkin
Graduate and Professional Divisions
Touro College

The number of lawyers appointed as college and university presidents has more than doubled in each decade of the last three, with a staggering 159 lawyers appointed in the last half of the 2010s. Though I examined this point in my recent piece in the Washington Post, this trend deserves further explanation – especially considering that for 90 years, from 1900 to 1989, fewer than 1% of all college presidents were lawyers.

Historically, the typical path to the college presidency began with a position as a faculty member. From there one was promoted to department chair or dean, followed by an appointment as provost or another senior leadership post in the central administration. Since lawyer presidents often do not follow this path, it is important to consider the pipeline of law professors that has swelled over the last three decades. With more law professors – and more academic administrative positions within law schools, such as associate deans for newer departments like academic affairs, student affairs, research and scholarship, experiential education and diversity and inclusion – more law professors have gained experience in the administrative realm. This makes them more viable candidates for deanships and for positions like those of provost or vice president. 

The chart below shows the number of lawyer presidents with prior academic experience. While the number has doubled in each of the last three decades, there is a growing trend, albeit with small numbers, of lawyer presidents emerging entirely from outside the academy. There are a number of lawyer presidents whose prior academic experience does not come from a law school, but rather from another discipline such as business and public administration, or from administrative experience, like serving as vice president for a university department or as general counsel to a college or university.

Presidents with Prior Academic Experience
(Blue: Academic Experience    Orange: No Academic Experience)

Why Law Professors Make Good Choices for Campus Presidencies

The next chart illustrates the number of lawyer presidents who previously held appointments as law professors.

Presidents with Prior Law Professor Experience
(Blue: Law Professor Experience   Orange: No Law Professor Experience)

A growing number of law professors are skipping over the traditional step of becoming law deans prior to becoming provosts or presidents. This is not surprising, however, since many law professors make attractive and competitive candidates for the role of campus leader. After all, many of the doctrinal fields taught and studied by law faculty are essential to the skillset of effective presidents.

For example, in today’s higher education climate, lawyers with backgrounds in mergers and acquisitions may be desirable for schools that hope to grow by strategically acquiring or merging with other schools. Administrative law, constitutional law, state and local government law, tax law and policy, and other federalism courses are good background for the public policy skills that college presidents need to garner public sector economic support for the campus and higher education in general. They also provide an excellent background for the growing field of compliance issues on campuses. Alternative dispute resolution, mediation, and team-based problem-solving skills are important for resolving conflicts between various campus stakeholders, and for bringing campus constituencies together. Likewise, trial advocacy skills can come in handy to help frame the campus narrative in compelling ways for donors, prospective students, alumni, and other influencers. So too, could trusts and estates be useful when making the case for various forms of planned giving. Faculty who teach in the contracts, corporate, and business law fields bring a sense of financial acumen and business entrepreneurship essential for the successful president, and labor law faculty can offer unique perspectives in the areas of human resource management, harassment prevention, safety, and appropriate accommodations. Faculty in real estate can be valuable for campuses in need of further development or redevelopment. Lastly, the required course and national examination in ethics and professionalism contributes to a sense of professional responsibility in lawyers that is transferrable to the campus leaders who must be people of high integrity. 

There is also no doubt that the rise of the regulatory state has had a major impact on the business of higher education. Today, the National Association of College and University Counsel’s website lists, among other things, the following categories of cases and developments for campus general counsel: accreditation, authorizations & Higher Education Act; athletics and sports; campus police, safety, and crisis management; compliance and risk management; constitutional issues; contracts; discrimination, accommodation & diversity; ethics; faculty & staff; general counsel; governance; immigration and international activities; intellectual property; investigations; real property, facilities and construction; sexual misconduct and other campus violence; students; tax; and technology. Presidents with legal training may be able to more easily navigate the morass of statutes, regulations and case law to effectively work with campus counsel to ensure appropriate preventive law strategies and responses to daily challenges.

Law Deans as a Pathway to the Presidency

The last chart, below, shows the number of law deans who were appointed as a college or university president. It is interesting to compare these numbers to those in the chart above, and to note that more college presidents were formerly law professors and not law deans. This is surprising given the wider breadth of administrative experience and exposure to campus-wide issues that law deans enjoy.

Most often, law deans are selected from the law faculty, including faculty who have assumed great administrative responsibility. Law deans offer additional skills for the presidency. For example, most law deans have proven track records in the areas of fundraising and philanthropy. Furthermore, law deans operate in an environment of shared governance with the faculty, an excellent training ground for shared governance practices throughout the campus. Deans are also part of the chief academic officer’s leadership cabinet, responsible for development and for overseeing a sizable budget, and often part of the formulation and implementation of significant campus policies and strategic direction. This preparation can be invaluable to a new college president.

Presidents with Prior Law Dean Experience
(Blue: Law Dean Experience   Orange: No Law Dean Experience)

Influencers and Appointing Authority

It stands to reason that, with more college and universities including law schools within their portfolio, more law faculty and administrators are likely tapped to serve on presidential search committees. While the job of the search committee is to identify, screen, and recommend candidates, it is the governing board that has ultimate responsibility for the appointment. According to the 2015 survey of the composition of college and university governing boards published by the Association on Governing Boards in 2016, the biggest change by percentage of independent college board members was for those members with business backgrounds which rose from 47.9% in 1997 to 54.9% in 2015. Board members with other professional service (which would include lawyers) also increased, from 16.7% in 1997 to 21.8% in 2015. Since more lawyers are helping to select the future of campus leadership, it stands to reason that more lawyers and legal educators are accepted as viable candidates, and more are being selected to assume these top campus leadership spots. 


Based on the data from the last thirty years, it is likely that by 2029, lawyers will account for 300 to 400 presidents – or more than 10% of all sitting presidents. While there will always be “non-traditional” presidents, similar to the non-traditional law deans who are selected from outside of the academy, the data still proves that the overwhelming majority of college and university presidents who are lawyers come from legal education. This will continue to be a career path for professors and law school administrators who desire to serve the larger campus community and a broader higher education constituency. 

*This research is part of the author’s dissertation for her PhD in Creativity from the University of the Arts. 

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