UVA Darden Dean’s Book Charts Rise of Nontraditional Leaders in Higher Education

By Dave Hendrick

A revolution has been taking place in the ranks of higher education. University and college presidents — once almost invariably the products of traditional, tenure-track academic career paths — are rapidly becoming a group with diverse backgrounds and skills.

In his new book Higher Calling: The Rise of Nontraditional Leaders in Academia (September 2017; UVA Press), Scott Beardsley, dean of the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, offers a new vision of leadership for today’s higher education, while sharing insights on his journey from McKinsey & Co. to Monticello.

Mixing autobiography with in-depth profiles and analysis of nontraditional leaders in higher education, as well as strategies for developing a range of leadership skills, Higher Calling is an essential guide to understanding the modern face of leadership in colleges and universities. The book comes as campus leaders face a host of high-pressure tasks and challenges, from ensuring full compliance with Title IX requirements to balancing budgets while upholding academic standards.

The topic is a personal one for Beardsley, who spent more than 25 years as a management consultant with McKinsey, rising to the rank of senior partner and eventually leading the firm’s internal knowledge and training efforts before seeking his doctorate in higher education management at the University of Pennsylvania and joining the Darden School as dean.

“I come from a family of educators and have always been passionate about and fascinated by the field,” said Beardsley. “In Higher Calling, I hope to provide useful and actionable insights into a series of notable developments among academic leaders — men and women tasked to lead during a period of intense pressure and unprecedented change at colleges and universities.”

Beardsley pegs the start of his career shift to his time visiting institutes of higher education with his college-bound sons, trips that awakened a love of the educational environment and all of its promises. Discovering a new sense of purpose, the Darden School dean recounts his determination to make himself into an ideal candidate for a leadership position at a U.S. university. Beardsley pulls back the curtain on the often opaque process of leadership recruiting in higher education, in which a handful of executive search firms hold remarkable influence.

As Beardsley progressed in the recruiting process, he noted that he was often referred to as the lone “nontraditional” candidate under consideration, and occasionally found his motivations and intentions greeted with suspicion. Even so, nontraditional leadership is clearly on the rise, with nontraditional presidents now in place at roughly one-third of liberal arts colleges in the U.S.

Beardsley’s doctoral dissertation research on the emergence and incidence of nontraditional leaders in higher education allowed him to uncover the insights in Higher Calling. He was inspired by the topic while pursuing his doctorate with a cohort of nearly two dozen higher education leaders from nontraditional backgrounds.

Ultimately, Beardsley believes the debate of traditional versus nontraditional leadership is an outdated one, and the choice of academic leaders should be based solely on the skill set needed to solve the problems at hand. Increasingly, the skills required combine an understanding of the academy with a wide range of leadership, fundraising and complex managerial skills. Universities must be viewed and managed like the large, complex organizations they are, Beardsley says, and ability — not labels subject to bias — should drive the decision.

About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D., MSBA and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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Darden School of Business
University of Virginia