College presidents may be wearing too many hats

By Laurie Bennett

January 30, 2009 at 9:42am

Should university presidents sit on corporate boards?

Sen. Chuck Grassley doesn’t think so. The Iowa Republican issued a statement in November questioning the practice.

“University boards should look at what students gain or lose from having the university president sit on corporate boards, such as Bear Stearns,” Grassley said. “Maybe there are fund-raising gains, but those gains might be undercut by time away from the institution or conflicts of interest.”

The Chronicle of Education last year released a study of corporate-board membership by the chief executives of 40 top research universities. Of that group, 19 sat on at least one board. Three served as directors of four companies.

Our own review of the Muckety database shows that many major companies - including Caterpillar, Cisco Systems, DuPont and General Electric - have tapped board presidents as board members. Some firms, such as American Greetings, have more than one college president on their boards.

Board positions generally come with six-figure compensation packages, a major supplement to the already substantial pay received by most college presidents. A review by the Chronicle showed that median compensation for public-university presidents last year was $427,400. Median pay at large private research universities was $527,172.

It can be argued that corporate ties present not only potential conflicts of interest, but possible fundraising sources - a never-ending challenge for college presidents looking to shore up shrinking endowments.

Networked leaders often bring government connections as well. Former pols who have assumed college presidencies include David L. Boren, president of the University of Oklahoma, and Bob Kerrey, president of the New School in Manhattan.

Both men served as governor and U.S. senator. Both sit as directors of several companies.

Boren is a director of Texas Instruments, AMR, Hiland Partners and Torchmark Corporation. Kerrey is a director of Scientific Games, Tenet Healthcare, Jones Apparel Group and Genworth Financial.

University of North Carolina President Erskine B. Bowles is another example of such cross-connections. Before moving to UNC, Bowles headed the Small Business Administration and served as chief of staff to President Bill Clinton.

Now, in addition to his university duties, he is a director of two companies battered by the financial crisis: Morgan Stanley and General Motors.

Even in an age of networking and multitasking, it’s difficult to see how how even the most skilled leader can find enough time to direct a major educational institution while helping to steer large corporations through the today’s economic challenges.

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  • #1.   Michael P. Wright 01.31.2009

    David Boren is one of the most corrupt political oligarchs in American history. He also was on the board of directors for Conoco-Phillips, but stepped down mysteriously in 2005. Regarding his membership on the Texas Instruments board, it’s significant that TI is the largest marketer of cell phone chips. Cell phone use in the OU library and microcomputer labs is rampant, even though these nuisance devices were supposedly “banned” in the library in 2001. Boren has made a practice of mysteriously resigning from places. In 1994, he resigned from the U.S. Senate, with two years remaining on his third term. In the year earlier, gay activists were outing him and accusing him of sexually harassing his male staff members. He was terrified of wide disclosure of this unsavory history. See my link for more information about this. Hoping for a Cabinet post, he angered his conservative supporters in Oklahoma last year by endorsing Obama. Fortunately, Obama didn’t want to have anything to do with this buffoon.

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