The profile of college and university presidents is changing, and lawyers are emerging as a new cohort of higher education leaders. There are many pathways to the presidency for lawyers, and one strong commonality in the background of the modern lawyer president is experience in government. This is not surprising, given the shared skill set required for successful government lawyers and successful campus leaders.
Lawyers Emerge as College and University Presidents
With roughly 4,000 institutions of higher education in the United States, there is a robust body of literature on leadership in higher education. Presidents have been studied and critiqued by biographers and scholars, yet scarce attention has been paid to the trend of lawyers assuming the campus leadership position.1 As the chart below illustrates, the number of lawyer president appointments has more than doubled in each of the last three decades—with a staggering 162 lawyers appointed in the 2010s. At this rate, by 2029, lawyers will account for 300 to 400 presidents, or more than 10 percent of all sitting presidents. Considering that from 1900 to 1989, less than 1 percent of college presidents were lawyers, these numbers are astonishing.
Number of Lawyers Appointed as College and University Presidents (By Decade)
Former Government Lawyers Constitute a Significant Cohort of College Presidents
Even more interesting are the varied backgrounds and career paths that lead from the courtroom to the boardroom. The chart below illustrates that just as the number of lawyer presidents has increased, the number of lawyers with government experience has doubled.
Lawyer Presidents with Prior Government Experience (By Decade)
Government experience comes in a variety of forms. Some lawyer presidents have completed military service as Judge Advocate General (JAG) officers and other commissioned appointments, some clerked for a federal or state judge, others were prosecutors, and the majority worked in the executive and legislative branches—including appointments at the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Department of Education, the White House, counsel to legislative committees, the offices of state attorneys general, and as chiefs of staff or advisers to key elected officials.
In some instances, elected officials who are lawyers have been tapped for campus presidencies. For example, Daniel P. Malloy, former governor of Connecticut and mayor of Stamford, began his tenure in 2019 as the chancellor of the University of Maine System. William Bulger, president of the Massachusetts Senate for 18 years, became president of the University of Massachusetts in 1995. Cathy Cox was president of Young Harris College after she served as Georgia secretary of state and ran unsuccessfully for governor. Janet Napolitano, governor of Arizona and head of Homeland Security, became president of the University of California System in 2013. Paul McNulty, who was appointed by President George W. Bush as deputy attorney general, is president of Grove City College, and Glenn McConnell served as president of the College of Charleston after serving as lieutenant governor of South Carolina.
Leadership, Government Lawyers, and Campus Presidents
Given the number of necessary skills shared between government lawyers and campus presidents, perhaps it is not so surprising that a growing number of presidents have public service experience.
While lawyers may enter the public service at different times in their careers, as well as at different points of entry and levels of government, successful government lawyers possess basic leadership qualities, traits, and experiences that transfer well into the higher education space. For example, government lawyers must often confront media headlines and crises, which require strategic, thoughtful, and appropriate responses. So, too, the college president must be prepared for the unexpected. Consider recent higher education headlines about admissions scandals, historical ties to slavery, allegations of racism, clashes over free speech and hate speech, allegations of harassment and campus safety, and other improprieties—all of which the campus leader swiftly must address.
“I have a lot of experience managing large public institutions, they all involve politics in some way or another; it’s not as if higher education is divorced from that.”
Additionally, just as government officials must provide answers and information to the public, college presidents must be excellent timely communicators for their constituents—a body that includes students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents, and donors, as well as the general public. Attorneys are trained in oral advocacy and communication skills from the very start of law school, and they hone those skills throughout their careers. In both government and higher education, the most important communications statements typically are vetted by attorneys who review them for accuracy, truthfulness, and potential unintended consequences. This training and innate awareness on the part of the lawyer president can make all the difference when managing crisis communications, especially ones that can have positive or negative long-term ramifications for the institution.
With a reputation for being creative problem solvers, government lawyers often operate in the space of the unknown. They learn to draw on precedent, consider multi-level potential positive and negative ramifications, and abide by the rule of law when making recommendations and decisions. Here, their analytical skills play a key role. Likewise, campus presidents must be able to view unexpected challenges critically through multiple lenses and to quickly make informed and reasoned decisions based on a full analysis of facts and data.
Effective government lawyers also possess excellent management skills, as they often supervise direct reports and teams. To accomplish tasks within short time frames, they must possess excellent interpersonal skills and be able to motivate their colleagues. Similarly, campus presidents manage direct reports and must handle delicate relationships with faculty and boards, as well as with students, staff, donors, and community leaders.
What’s more, lawyers who work in government must perfect the art of compromise. Rarely is the original draft of a piece of legislation or proposed rulemaking the same as the version that is adopted, thanks to input—both solicited and not—from a wide variety of stakeholders who often disagree. The college president experiences something similar. She must work with various campus and community stakeholders to develop and refine policies and procedures that will appeal to all parts of the campus community. While peaceful protests are expected in halls of statehouses, peaceful protests on campus are more apt to make the national news. Knowing when and how to compromise is an essential leadership skill.
Simply understanding how government works is of great value to campus leaders. After all, they must navigate the world of public funding at all levels of government successfully to deliver needed resources to their schools for capital and programmatic priorities. Equally important is the ability to advocate for the individual campus’s role in the higher education space. Public policy and public budget decisions can have a tremendous impact on the sustainable health of individual institutions and on higher education in general. Presidents with government backgrounds may have an advantage when developing strategies targeted at the policy and public sectors.
Given the similarities in general leadership skills required for both government lawyers and campus presidents, the fact that many of the lawyers appointed to the presidency have government experience is not a surprise—and perhaps is a quality that search committees should more strongly consider when evaluating the leadership abilities of potential candidates.