The landscape has perhaps never been rockier for those in charge of the nation's colleges and universities. Higher ed leaders must contend with a number of factors including disruptive technological forces, changing demographics, falling enrollments, and ongoing questions over the value of college education amid skyrocketing student loan debt. And that's not even counting the scandals that continue to hang over some schools.
Whether they're championing bold agendas, setting a standard for outreach, or overcoming cloudy futures and negative press these are 6 college presidents you'll want to keep an eye on as the year rolls on.
1. Janet Napolitano - University of California
Last July, Janet Napolitano left her post as U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security to head the University of California System. Despite being a non-traditional choice for the role, Napolitano was said to have championed higher ed during her time as governor of Arizona, during which she negotiated across the aisle with a Republican-controlled legislature to secure a $1-billion bond for new facilities while also securing a state financial aid increase and a fund for retaining professors.
A better picture of her first year will be available as August approaches, but she has so far committed $5 million to helping students in the country illegally, proposed a tuition freeze, and more as she brings an ambitious agenda to the table. Under the slogan "Teach for California, Research for the World," Napolitano is setting out to reconsider tuition policies, advance cooperation with the state's other two higher-ed systems, advance research and graduate education, and achieve carbon-neutral campuses by 2025. Challenging? Yes. But it will be interesting to see how her skills and connections in the political arena serve these goals.
2. E. Gordon Gee - West Virginia University
As the president of The Ohio State University, E. Gordon Gee was the third highest-paid head of a public university in the U.S., and for good reason — the school's long-term investment fund saw 11.6% growth under his guidance. Unfortunately, a joke about "those damn Catholics" at Notre Dame led to his retirement from the position.
Still, you can't keep the man down. After leading a college affordability task force, the 70-year-old returned last year to West Virginia University — which he led 30 years ago — as interim president. It remains to be seen if he's back long enough to earn even a full year's pay, but given his track record, the school where he first served as president can only benefit from even a few months of his leadership. Plus, who can argue with student outreach like this? And will his next "retirement" truly be his last?
3. Santa J. Ono - University of Cincinnati
Speaking of student outreach, University of Cincinnati President Santa J. Ono arguably sets the standard for the digital age. He's become extremely popular on Twitter (as of this writing, he has around 28,400 followers) and initially took to the platform when he realized it was the easiest way to connect with students — who, by the way, love tweeting him.
Ono is an excellent example of how a platform like Twitter can be leveraged not just to improve student outreach, but community visibility. How that benefits Cincy, and how others follow his lead, is worth keeping an eye on.
4. Eric Barron - Penn State
Former Florida State University president Eric Barron was only announced as the new president of Penn State University about a week ago, but he certainly has his work ahead of him as he tries to right a ship rocked by the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. The school's previous president, Graham B. Spanier, and two other officials are currently facing trial for allegedly helping to cover up the scandal.
Barron, a climatologist, is no stranger to the university, having previously served as a professor and dean. While the shadow of Sandusky has loomed large over much of the coverage of his appointment — Barron handled football scandals of his own at FSU, albeit much more effectively — it's important to keep in mind that Florida State was ranked as the nation's most efficient university for the last two years, is on the path to becoming a top 25 public university, and is now at the midpoint of a $1-billion capital campaign. The sun might soon shine through Penn State's clouds after all.
5. Mitch Daniels - Purdue University
Last month, Mitch Daniels, the former Republican governor of Indiana, reached the end of his first year as Purdue University's president. He made a same-day transition from one office to the other, and while he can count a tuition freeze and a call for $40 million in budget cuts among his triumphs, his first year in the role wasn't without its share of controversy.
Daniels was taken to task over emails that revealed alleged attempts to silence liberal scholars (a move that flies in the face of academic freedom), a speech given to a conservative group despite a commitment to remain nonpartisan, and a scandal involving an Ivy Tech administrator, appointed by the former governor, who e-mailed dirty jokes and photos of nude women to college officials. Still, it shouldn't take him long to shake off these bumps in the road, especially given his approachable nature and hands-on student outreach.
Tx to Meredith students & RAs for a good meal and an informative evening pic.twitter.com/STF6PHtnHp— Mitch Daniels (@purduemitch) February 25, 2014
6. TBD - Howard University
Sidney Ribeau stepped down in December after a year of challenges plagued the school. A board member's letter warning of "genuine trouble" due to leadership and management issues went public in June, and a credit rating downgrade from Moody's Investor Service and a serious 22-spot drop in the U.S. News rankings followed.
To make matters worse, enrollment at the prominent historically black university fell 5% and its troubles have continued into the new year. In February, a planned distance learning partnership between Howard and Pearson was placed on hold and 200 job cuts were announced.
Provost Wayne A.I. Frederick is currently serving as interim president while lawyer Vernon Jordan heads a search committee to find a permanent successor — a leader whose success the institution's very future may depend on.
Would you like to see more education news like this in your inbox on a daily basis? Subscribe to our Education Dive email newsletter! You may also want to read Education Dive's look at whether 1:1 programs should consider Ubuntu over pricey alternatives.