Is Athletics Experience Necessary For Incoming University Presidents?

February 16th, 2017 | by Ronnie Burton Jr
Is Athletics Experience Necessary For Incoming University Presidents?

University Presidents

University presidents are tasked with leading a very complex enterprise. Political in nature and vast in scale, these roles encompass multiple skillsets to be completely successful. While an AD’s job entails leading the athletic program he/she does it under the vision of the president. Yet, even though leading a university requires a laundry list of experiences, many presidential candidates face a steep learning curve when it comes to major college athletics. Over the years we’ve seen many presidents lose their jobs simply from the mismanagement of their athletics department. With schools such as the University Kansas currently going through a chancellor search, it’s key to understand a potential candidate’s experience in relation to athletics.

From a background perspective, most university presidents carry similar characteristics. According to the American Council on Educations 2012 Study on American College Presidents, most candidates are either sitting presidents, chief academic officers or provosts, or executives holding other positions on campus. Yet when a school carries a high-profile athletics program, search committees have to take other qualifications into account.

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The level of athletics your university competes at will largely determine how the school focuses their search. According to search firm Witt/Kieffer, 66 percent of sitting presidents at universities that compete in FBS football have prior experience at a similar institution. Meaning each has had a chance to interact with big time athletics.  With so much scrutiny on athletic departments, bringing in a president with little to no exposure can be viewed as a calculated risk.

Willam Funk, head of the search firm Funk & Associates feels search committees are definitely aware of the role athletics plays in recruitment.  In an article published in 2015 by Insider Higher Education, he goes into detail.

“There’s an awareness in these big schools that participate in big-time athletics that if their president has some familiarity with the NCAA, NCAA regulations, the financial aspect of these athletic programs and the public relations impact that these athletics programs can have on the institutions, the more attractive a candidate usually is.”

Ironically if we look at the last few presidential searches at Power 5 institutions, many have had little to no experience with major college athletics. With a huge emphasis on research, the medical sciences, and fundraising, schools are focused on finding candidates that are experts in these fields. Yet, as the scope of athletics continues to grow and crisis management becomes ever more frequent, it will be interesting to see if committees start taking a deeper look at the skill set of potential candidates.  

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As it pertains to the University of Kansas it will be fascinating to see what direction they move as they look to replace Bernadette Gray-Little. Buffered by an athletic department that truly is the front porch of the university, I believe athletics will play a major role as they look for their newest chancellor. In addition, I believe with the current climate there’s an opportunity to create professional development programs geared towards getting senior level academic officials who are seeking to become president a chance to learn about athletics administration.


Ronnie Burton Jr About Ronnie Burton Jr
Ronnie Burton Jr., is an emerging professional within collegiate athletics and higher education. Prior to writing for CollegeAD Ronnie worked in administrative and coaching positions at California Lutheran University, Arizona State, and Michigan State. A 2015 graduate of Arizona State’s Masters in Sports Law and Business Program he looks to be an asset for organizations making decisions in the areas of regulation and revenue generation. A former college baseball player, Ronnie’s passions reside at the intersection of higher education and athletics.

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