As I send my daughters off to college, I can’t help but wonder if their professors will issue them their grade for the term on their first day of class based upon how they dress, comments they make, or where they choose to sit in the class room?  Or will their professor wait until they hand in a few assignments and take a test or two before they pass judgment on them?

No-confidence votes by the University of Iowa faculty, as well as that of Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa chapters of American Association of University Professors will welcome the new U of I President Bruce Harreld on his first day.  Harreld’s offense – he’s not an academic but comes out of the business world.

Listening to the hue and outcry from the faculty, one would think the Board of Regents had broken new ground, or done something unthinkable for a university by inviting into its hallowed halls such an interloper.

Iowa isn’t alone.  There were howls of protest from the highest windows of certain ivory towers when another non-academic Janet Napolitano (former Governor of Arizona) was named president of the University of California.  No doubt the staff at the University of North Carolina were concerned when  Erskin  Bowles (Clinton Chief of Staff) took over.  Surely tears of blood were shed when Mitch Daniels (former Governor) took the helm at Perdue University and Bruce Benson (oil magnate) was selected to lead the University of Colorado.   Yet, I don’t believe those institutions saw students, or faculty members for that matter, lining up to transfer out.

The American Council on Education issues a regular report on the position of President at colleges and universities.   The traditional route to the Presidents office is through the Academic Dean’s.  Most have been a full time academic or faulty member.   However, it’s not the only route – just the most common. In 2007 the American Council on Education reported that 13% of college presidents came from fields outside of academia.  A year later they report the number was up to 20%, and 33% had never been a professor.

The same report found the areas that occupy most of a president’s time is “fundraising, budgets, community relations, and strategic planning.”  Writing lesson plans apparently didn’t make the list.

None of this is terribly shocking.  Consider that the new president at Iowa must grapple with a general education budget of $705,147,000.  That is part of a total operating revenues of $2,500,000,000 at the University when you include the hospitals.  There are over 31,000 students (let’s be offensive and call them customers for the purposes of discussion) and over 5,400 faculty and staff members (not counting all the doctors and nurses at the hospital).  It’s an academic institution, but make no mistake  – it’s also a very big business.

Universities taken as a whole, if looked at as businesses in an industry, have been having a financially difficult time.  Nationwide the credit rating firm Moody’s found that one in universities are in “acute financial distress” and has been downgrading their credit.  Their customers, I mean students, are leaving school carrying more debt than ever before – and that is unlikely to stop by freezing tuition for three years.  That is not a leading indicator to maintain the status quo.

To the faculty member who has read this far without either going into conniptions or already dashing off an incendiary email – I will admit that “I know that I know nothing” to mangle some Socrates.  The proof will be in seeing Bruce Harrell’s performance.  He could be just awful. But, given the duties most presidents face, he could be just fine.  He could be great.  I will wait and see before I pass judgment.  From what I have seen, however, the choice of a non-academic is not inherently disastrous.