MISSOULA — Sheila Stearns, interim president at the University of Montana, holds a doctoral degree, an Ed.D. in educational leadership.
Former UM President Royce Engstrom, her predecessor, holds a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry.
The late George Dennison led UM before Engstrom, and he earned a Ph.D. in history and received honorary doctorates, too.
The leaders of the Montana flagship achieved the highest degrees possible at an institution of higher education before leading one.
But the next UM president may not have as many letters after her name – or more likely, his name, according to data on university presidents from the American Council on Education.
The draft position advertisement for UM – still being vetted by search committee members – identifies an "earned doctorate/terminal degree from an accredited institution of higher education" as a "preferred" attribute. It is not a requirement.
"It makes me bristle at the faculty level to think of somebody who may not have done the necessary advanced study and research and scholarship" leading UM," said John DeBoer, chair of the UM Faculty Senate and member of the search committee.
DeBoer, whose terminal degree is an MFA, said he wants to be sure UM's next president understands the life of a university and won't become mired in data points for accreditors. But selecting a president is a nuanced undertaking, he said, and he is open to being persuaded based on a person's qualifications.
"My ideal would be somebody who understands the world of doctoral research and understands what it takes to be successful in the classroom and to be a colleague at a university," DeBoer said.
"And for the most part, that requires a terminal degree."
But leading a post-secondary institution is getting more difficult, according to the American Council on Education.
And these days, some schools are breaking the mold.
In 2013, Purdue University brought on Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels as president. Daniels holds a law degree from Georgetown University Law Center and is a former CEO.
Just last month, Metropolitan State University in Denver hired as president Janine Davidson, the 32nd undersecretary for the U.S. Navy, according to the Denver Post.
Davidson, who holds a doctoral degree, also taught national security policy and political science at Georgetown University. The Metro trustee chair said Davidson rose to the top of qualified candidates as the "hybrid" candidate – adept inside and outside academia.
According to the American Council on Education, which represents some 1,800 college and university presidents and related executives, the majority of college presidents have spent their careers in higher education. But the council's most recent study of U.S. college presidents also identified a shift.
"The share of presidents whose immediate prior position was outside higher education has increased since 2006 from 13 percent to 20 percent," according to the 2012 report, "The American College President Study"; a current survey is underway for the 2016-2017 report.
At the same time, the report noted presidents for the most part still have served as faculty members, although the number slipped a hair: "The share of presidents who have been full-time faculty members remained virtually unchanged between 2011 (70 percent) and 1986 (75 percent)."
James McCormick, guiding the recruitment at UM as a consultant with AGB Search, said the majority of applicants likely will have a doctorate. AGB Search doesn't necessarily promote candidates outside academia, he said, but it does encourage casting a wide net in the beginning of a recruitment.
"We recommend it: Keep the funnel a little bit open for that rare individual that might be a little non-traditional," McCormick said.
Then, search committee members can narrow the field with applications in hand.
At Purdue, faculty members weren't keen on bringing the state governor to take the reins, said Ralph Webb, faculty ombudsperson.
"Some said (Daniels) probably wouldn't even have been hired as a faculty member at a major university with his credentials," said Webb, also a communications professor.
"But he came in to be our president, and that was a concern. There's no doubt about it."
Several years later, faculty members have moderated their views somewhat, Webb said. Faculty members still express concerns at times about the administration's lack of understanding when it comes to academic functions, but he said the hire has turned out to be neutral from a faculty perspective.
"From other perspectives, it's turned out to be positive," Webb said.
Daniels froze tuition when no one else had the courage to do it, and his outreach to the state leaders, the business community and alumni has been a success, Webb said. If given the chance, he believes the faculty would vote to retain Daniels, albeit not unanimously.
"He is viewed as a tremendous fundraiser, and his ties to the community beyond Purdue are very strong and positive," Webb said.
As he sees it, university presidents need to know how to raise money, and he would advise a search committee to consider a candidate's ability to draw donations, be innovative and attract business relationships.
"You have to have a person in control who knows how to raise money," Webb said. "And that means business or politics has to be part and parcel of the individual's background, and you can't take a professor in some academic unit and make that person the president of a university and expect the university to grow and develop. It just won't happen."
The American Association of University Professors has a longstanding position that a university president "should be equally qualified to serve both as the executive officer of the governing board and as the chief academic officer of the institution and the faculty."
"I would actually interpret this to go far beyond simply having a terminal degree," said Hans-Joerg Tiede, with the American Association of University Professors.
The educational world is different than the business world, and it needs to be, Tiede said. For one thing, the governance model at a university, with some decision-making delegated to faculty, differs from the often top-down model in business.
Plus, he said, people coming from the business side aren't always familiar with the concepts of academic freedom and tenure and the reasons they're important in higher education.
"Those are not things one learns in the business world, necessarily," Tiede said. "It would just tremendously increase the learning curve when taking such an important position."
In fact, McCormick said it can take leaders from outside academia awhile to grasp the concept of shared governance, a long tradition in higher education. It's hard to generalize, he said, but the business world and the military don't operate that way.
"Sometimes, the people from business don't always do very well, don't last very long," McCormick said.
On the other hand, he said, a visionary and inclusive leader can come from a variety of fields, and he's pleased the committee at UM isn't excluding candidates from the outset.
"I think the most important thing is excellent leadership can come from a variety of sources, and this is about leadership," McCormick said.
The committee hopes to bring finalists to campus for public presentations in the fall.