With the recent announcement that Sean Decatur would assume the presidency of the American Museum of Natural History in New York after nearly a decade at the helm of Kenyon College, at least five major American cultural institutions will be headed by former presidents of small liberal arts colleges. In addition to Decatur at the Museum of Natural History, Daniel Weiss at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Tony Marx at the New York Public Library; Karen Lawrence at the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens in California; and Dan Porterfield at the Aspen Institute all served as liberal arts college presidents.
The path from college presidency to leadership of a major cultural institution seems increasingly well trodden. Why is that? And what does it tell us about leadership today, both for these prominent cultural institutions and for higher education?
Why Are Cultural Institutions Choosing College Presidents?
The preparedness of college leaders to take on broader roles reflects the many shifts in the role of academic leadership. Small liberal arts colleges might once have been perceived as “up on the hill” or enclosed by an invisible (or, in some cases, quite real) fence. But in recent years, these institutions have increasingly engaged and partnered with their surrounding communities, recognizing and pursuing mutual benefits, whether financial, environmental or cultural—as have institutions like libraries and museums.
Today’s college president is actively engaged with the surrounding community in many ways, connecting the mission of the institution with the needs and well-being of its local environment. For example, very often the small college is the largest or one of the top three employers in its region. Effective presidents take this responsibility seriously and work in close collaboration with local business, governmental and service organizations. Their purview is not limited to academic programs but includes a more expansive remit and audience—much like broader cultural institutions.
Colleges and universities have also been at the center of one of the most critical issues of our day: the advancement of diversity, equity and inclusion. The student bodies of small academic institutions, which were overwhelmingly homogeneous as recently as a decade ago, now often include 30 to 50 percent self-identified students of color, as well as a number of other underrepresented populations. Presidential leadership has been essential in that evolution. As diversity per se has increased, so has the need for colleges to address the complexity of true inclusion—an issue that faces all institutions today. Historically, social evolution has often been advanced by young people, and college presidents have a particular understanding of and experience with that population of change-makers for the future.
In many ways, the experiences of college presidents prepare them well to enable institutions beyond the academy to engage the current environment effectively.
Why Are Presidents Moving to Cultural Institutions?
The voice of the American university president as a public intellectual was once a well-recognized force. An iconic figure in this regard was the Reverend Theodore Hesburgh, long-serving president of the University of Notre Dame. His national and global engagement in support of civil rights, nuclear disarmament and other causes is legendary. In their day, Kingman Brewster Jr. of Yale University and Clark Kerr of the University of California, Berkeley, were also institutional presidents with broad public recognition. That presidential voice seems to have fallen silent.
Today’s college presidents are rarely in the national eye—unless in association with misdeed or scandal. Undoubtedly, there are many contributing factors to this change. Among them: intense political polarization, the cancel culture of social media (across the political spectrum), the general coarsening of public discourse and even a fear of physical violence. One of the complexities of college leadership is that a president typically has approximately nine different constituencies (students, parents, alumni, donors, faculty, staff, local, state and federal government, at the least) whose views are not only not aligned, but frequently diametrically opposed to one another.
This complexity may well account for the reticence of college presidents to profess views on the public stage. Particularly so when—for the first time in modern memory—the role and value of higher education today are not only disputed but often discredited in public discourse. Perhaps there is a different path for academic leaders who are passionate about education to assume a public role. Moving from leadership of a campus to leadership of a cultural organization potentially offers a public-minded leader the opportunity to reach a larger audience through a broader outreach. While enrollments in higher education are declining precipitously, museums and libraries have been, with relative success, intentionally reinventing themselves to enable many more citizens to access and benefit from their resources.
Ironically, a career shift out of the academy may also offer these administrators a more focused impact in their area of greatest scholarly and personal passion. Decatur, the only scientist in the group, indicated that moving to the American Museum of Natural History would enable him to pursue a personal mission to make scientific discoveries and research available to all. For humanists, the imperative to make a difference in the public sphere appears even more compelling, as college enrollments in humanities decline dramatically.
Both Marx (New York Public Library) and Porterfield (Aspen Institute) had substantially focused their college presidencies on equity and access; each has been able to extend that commitment further with a broader public platform for action. Lawrence (Huntington), a scholar of English and Irish literature, now heads an institution that makes available to the public, among other resources, a major collection on the literature and history of English-speaking peoples. As CEO of the Metropolitan Museum—which, under his tenure, has been called “among the most ambitious, programmatically robust and financially strong cultural institutions in the world”—Weiss has brought to the position both an M.B.A. and a scholarly concentration in medieval and Byzantine art.
As the roles of college presidents have become more complex—and, of necessity, more engaged with contemporary issues beyond the academy—we may expect to see more of these seasoned leaders bringing their administrative experiences and their academic passions to more public-facing educational opportunities.