John Engler has plenty of company when it comes to leading large, higher-education institutions across America without holding a Ph.D.
The former Michigan governor, installed on Wednesday as interim president of Michigan State University, graduated from the university with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics and a law degree from the Thomas M. Cooley Law School in 1985.
Experts in higher-ed leadership said on Wednesday that being the president of a university and college is not about having a doctorate and that several prominent university presidents have lacked such a postgraduate degree.
They include Lamar Alexander, former president of the University of Tennessee; William Friday, former head of the University of North Carolina; and David L. Boren, the president of the University of Oklahoma.
“The academics would prefer a Ph.D. person, a person who understands academia,” said Ferrel Guillory, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“But the role of a university president is multifaceted. It is leading the academic community, but it’s about building a relationship with the legislature and state authorities who provide funding. It’s about building relationships with private funders. It is also about building a relationship with the public.”
On Wednesday, the MSU Board of Trustees voted at a meeting to choose the former governor to steady the school after the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal.
Engler, a Republican, was Michigan’s governor from 1991 to 2003. He told reporters on Wednesday, “I’m only here to help the university community address this crisis and lay a positive foundation for the new president. We have an extreme organizational challenge that must be addressed.”
“I put myself in the place of every parent who sent their loved ones to this great institution. I understand the concern and uncertainty as well as the frustration and anger. … I will move forward as if my own daughters were on this campus.
“But mark my words, change is coming.”
Engler, 69, has vowed to tap former Democratic Gov. Jim Blanchard to be his adviser.
Board members, including Democrats, praised the former GOP governor as the right person for the job. But MSU faculty and students at Wednesday’s meeting are bucking the decision and say they were not truly involved in the trustees’ pick.
Ashley Fuente, president of the MSU Council of Graduate Students, criticized the appointment in a statement.
“Even on a temporary basis, the damage that can be caused by appointing a politician as interim president on an already polarized campus is catastrophic,” she said. “Ex-Governor Engler has passed legislation and policies in the past that are in direct conflict with our core value of inclusion.”
But Gleaves Whitney, a former speechwriter for Engler who is now director of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at Grand Valley State University, recalled a meeting Engler had at the University of Michigan when he was deciding where his archives should go. Engler was talking about history, scholarship, books, the latest research and other matters.
“They were just blown away. They just viewed him as a politician. They didn’t realize he had this great deal of intellectual depth,” Whitney said.
Whitney said it does not matter whether Engler has a higher degree.
“It’s an interim position. He has got to be a fixer because MSU is broken and needs fixing,” he said. “John Engler will be able to make tough decisions. He will listen. He will do his utmost to restore an environment of integrity at MSU.”
Engler ran a scandal-free administration for 12 years, Whitney added.
“Because of his personal and professional integrity, he is someone who cares a lot about stewarding institutions. His overall approach to leadership is he is very intent on listening to all people. He gathers all viewpoints,” Whitney said.
Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni in Washington, D.C., said it would be a mistake for the public to think there is only one effective pathway to college leaders through academia.
“Some of the most effective and dynamic leaders have come out of government office,” said Poliakoff, such as George Hanks Brown, a former Republican politician and U.S. Senator from Colorado who served as president of the University of Colorado system from April 2005 to January 2008.
“Hank turned that university around. What made him successful is he understood the academic mission. You don’t need a Ph.D. for that,” he said.
During the next few months, Engler must provide transparency and work to regain and maintain public trust, Poliakoff said.
“He has excellent diplomatic skills. He will bring all parties to the table. … That’s something that not every academic is good at,” he said.