America’s Ten Most Innovative College Presidents

Higher Ed in the future may look a lot like what these leaders are doing right now.

College presidents don’t generally factor into the choices students make about where to apply. No high schooler calls her mother after a campus tour to breathlessly say, “Dr. Stevenson has a great ten-year capital projects fund-raising plan!” While some presidents are closer to the spotlight than others, they mostly do their work, from an individual student’s perspective, behind the scenes, whether it’s making administrative hires, speaking at conferences, or sweet-talking deep-pocketed alumni.

But for students and higher ed as a whole, college presidents are hugely important actors, because their visions for their institutions—and their ability to carry out those visions—determine whose interests really get served. Unfortunately, most of them, like most humans, tend to accept whatever definition of success their tribe and surroundings tell them. If everyone says that to be an outstanding college president you have to keep the university just the way it is other than to raise and spend more money than your predecessor, well, that’s what you’ll do.

Some presidents, however, resist doing things the same old way for the same wrong reasons. These are innovators who treat their schools like laboratories, devising new and better ways of serving their students while providing potential road maps to success for peer institutions. With that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of ten college presidents who are changing higher ed for the better. This is not a traditional ranking of which presidents are “best”; no credit is given for increasing the endowment, raising selectivity, or growing a school’s brand. And while you’ll find college rankings elsewhere in these pages, simply taking over a good school and keeping it good does not an exceptional leader make. Rather, these presidents have implemented specific, innovative programs in areas like affordability, diversity, research, and service. They’re the ones who, whether well known or not, are shaping the future of America’s schools.

MARK BECKER
Georgia State University
Sept-15-10 Innovative Presidents-BeckerBecker has embraced big data as the president of Georgia State, using statistical analysis to greatly increase success for students who are racial minorities, low income, first in the family to attend college, or from other backgrounds historically associated with lower college achievement—which make up the vast majority of a campus population that’s getting less white and less rich. Becker’s program increased the six-year graduation rate from 32 percent all the way up to 53 percent and basically eliminated the graduation rate gap between students of different racial backgrounds. And that’s despite a drop in state funding for higher ed. The school models how students’ grades can predict later performance, as well as when financial issues are likely to crop up. When students do particularly well (or particularly poorly) in one class, advisers are ready to help them find similar (or different) classes they can excel in. And when a student is facing money trouble, there’s a “micro grant” program to get them the money to stay enrolled. Ninety percent of the 2013 freshmen who received these grants ended up staying in school. “Think of going through college as driving a car, and the destination of the car is graduation,” Becker told the Hechinger Report last year. “If you start drifting off the road, we want to straighten you out and keep you driving forward.”

MARIA KLAWE
Harvey Mudd College
Sept-15-Innovative Presidents-Klawe
No college administrator is working harder than Klawe to bridge the gender gap in tech. When she took over the small California school in 2006, one in ten computer science majors there were women. By last year’s incoming class, that ratio was up to four in ten. To achieve this unprecedented increase, Klawe overhauled the way the school recruited and kept female students. Girls who are accepted are steered toward computer science as either a major or a minor. While all CS students need to take an introductory class, it’s meant to welcome rather than weed out those who are interested. “I’d be surprised if twenty of our eighty-five graduates last year had any experience with computer science before college,” Klawe told Bloomberg Business last year. This is in sharp contrast to the CS major stereotype of nerdy men who started coding before hitting puberty—an image that can dissuade even the most STEM-focused women at other schools, who might turn to a field like biology or chemistry because they think they’re already way behind in CS. It helps that Klawe aggressively hired female faculty; six of the fifteen current computer science professors are women. She would be the first to say that her strategy contains no silver bullet. There’s no magic trick involved in heavily recruiting female students, making them feel welcome in computer science, and hiring women to teach them. It certainly helps to be a small private school like Harvey Mudd, which has the resources to do these things. But that doesn’t stop it from being replicable at plenty of other colleges across the country.

DIANA NATALICIO
University of Texas at El Paso
Sept-15-Innovative Presidents-NatalicioNatalicio has served longer than any other president on this list, taking over UTEP in 1988. Her reign has seen a dramatic transformation of the school, growing research funding from $6 million to $84 million a year, making impacts in fields like tobacco and drug addiction, traumatic brain injuries, vaccines, and obesity prevention, while creating better student outcomes and changing the makeup of the school to better reflect its largely Hispanic border community. (The student body is now nearly 80 percent Hispanic, including more than 1,000 Mexican students who cross over the border to attend. That’s up from 55 percent when Natalicio took over.) To illustrate just how massive this turnaround was, UTEP went from 151st in the Washington Monthly’s 2006 college rankings to tenth this year. The key, Natalicio says, is not just attracting students from the surrounding community, it’s keeping them. That means keeping tuition low, keeping classes available in case students miss a semester, and creating jobs on campus so students don’t need to work inflexible jobs outside the university. “When a student is enrolled, they bring their talent, their hard work, their commitment to succeed,” she told the Washington Monthly. “And we should take care of just about everything else.” While Natalicio’s overhaul is proof that colleges don’t need to choose between keeping tuition down and funding research, or between raising standards and catering to a traditionally underserved community, rising tuition and state higher ed funding cuts have left her less than optimistic about the state of higher education. “I think that we’ve converted what used to be viewed as a public good into a private benefit,” Natalicio says. “We’ve said as a society that this is something that you benefit from, so you ought to pay for it. And if you can’t pay for it, you can’t have it. I think that’s a huge mistake.”

MICHAEL CROW
Arizona State University
Sept-15-Innovative Presidents-CrowCrow may be the best-known president on this list, thanks to his school’s agreement with Starbucks, which provides online courses to the coffee chain’s employees paid for by Starbucks and Arizona State. But while that move made headlines, Crow’s actual impact has been much larger. Since taking over in 2002, he grew the university to more than 80,000 students while raising graduation rates and enrolling way more students from below the poverty line. Getting more people into the workforce with bachelor’s degrees is a boon for the country as a whole, and few colleges are able (or willing) to do it by dramatically increasing their undergraduate capacity. While Arizona State placed ninetieth on the Washington Monthly’s 2006 college ranking, the first of our lists to include it, the school has risen to thirty-fourth this year. These increases are thanks in large part to an ambitious online education program as well as a greater emphasis on research, funding for which has tripled since Crow took over. While his massive reforms aren’t workable at all schools (they’re tailor-made for large, research-heavy institutions with money to spare), his ideas are getting lots of attention from a higher ed community that’s always looking for ways to get more degrees in the hands of less-advantaged students.

CATHARINE BOND HILL
Vassar College
Sept-15-Innovative Presidents-HillVassar has a reputation as one of the most elite colleges in the U.S.—the kind of school that took in the daughters and (more recently) sons of the country’s wealthiest families. Hill, on the other hand, came from an academic background working on college affordability and access for low-income students. She took over in 2006 after serving as provost at Williams College, which underwent a transformation of its own during her tenure, and she has proceeded to push Vassar to great strides in those areas. “[We] shifted from 60 percent non-financial aid, 40 percent financial aid, to 60 percent financial aid, 40 percent non-financial aid,” she told the Washington Monthly earlier this year. “And from 20, 22 percent students of color to 40 percent students of color, that’s big.” It represents a major shift in both focus and budget priorities—$27 million of Vassar’s endowment went toward financial aid in Hill’s first year, compared to more than $60 million this year. It’s not a full-scale transformation of the student body, but it’s a blueprint for how elite schools can balance remaining competitive in their traditional student base of upper-class achievers while also committing to a more social justice-oriented mission of diversity and upward mobility. “Will it solve higher education’s problems? No. But at least it’s going in the right direction,” Hill said. “And if other schools in our sector did it, it would be a great thing.”

PAUL LeBLANC
Southern New Hampshire University
Sept-15-Innovative Presidents-LeBlancWhile some presidents on this list are finding new ways to embrace affordability in the context of large state schools and elite private ones, LeBlanc is shooting for something completely different. Southern New Hampshire, a private school, has a traditional campus in Manchester that houses about 3,000 students. LeBlanc opened a satellite campus in 2008 that sits in an office park and charges one-third the price of the main one. It’s all about fundamentals, he told the Washington Monthly at the time: “Could we offer the essential educational experience—lots of academic support and advising, and really good teaching, and small classes, the things that are at the heart of what we do—and strip away all of the other things that add cost?” The idea worked, and other schools (including state university systems) began to copy it. LeBlanc took an even bolder step last year in announcing the country’s first fully accredited $10,000 online bachelor’s degree program. It’s an attempt to bridge the gap between academic study that most colleges cherish and the vocational training that employers are calling for—the nimble flexibility of an online degree with the essential proficiencies you won’t get from the kind of for-profit colleges that often prey in this area. When you’re preaching “no-frills” college and you’ve already stripped away everything but the classrooms, it turns out there’s only one thing left to cut. Bigger powers took notice—LeBlanc took a three-month sabbatical in March to be a senior adviser to Department of Education Undersecretary Ted Mitchell on college access, affordability, and innovative academic programs. One result? A federal experiment allowing students to use Pell Grants to pay for coding boot camps.

MICHAEL SORRELL
Paul Quinn College
Sept-15-Innovative Presidents-SorrellSorrell was essentially cold-called in 2007 about taking over Paul Quinn, which was close to shutting its gates for good. “When people call you up to offer you a job you didn’t apply for, either you’re amazing or no one else wanted the job,” he told the Washington Monthly. “It was the latter. Everything was broken.” The nearly 150-year-old historically black college only had about 250 students, and was having trouble keeping them in school. One of Sorrell’s first moves was to take on two very different birds—the school’s budget deficit, and the surrounding community’s status as a federally recognized food desert—with one stone. He disbanded the football team, no easy task in Dallas, and literally turned the field into a farm. The team had been costing $600,000 a year, according to Yahoo Sports, and Sorrell said it would have cost $2 million to save. The farm is operated by students (who are paid for their work), and the resulting produce is sold to local grocers and restaurants, used at the college, or donated to local charities. Students aren’t just picking vegetables—they’re working on the business end, too, getting paid professional experience with a service twist. It’s all part of Sorrell’s vision for what he calls the “New Urban College Model”—a work school that emphasizes local businesses rather than manual labor (like at rural counterparts). Paul Quinn students work the first two years on campus, then are placed at businesses around Dallas for the next two. They get part of their paycheck, and the other part goes toward their tuition. Sorrell cut that tuition from $23,800 to $14,275, and he says that between students’ work, Pell Grants, and other state and federal funds, the average student only takes on $2,300 in loans a year. While the logistics are specific to the Dallas area, he doesn’t think that means other schools can’t follow his lead. “When I designed this model, I designed it for replication,” he said. “Schools can do this. Schools should do this. And schools should address the issues of the communities they serve.”

JOHN HITT
University of Central Florida
Sept-15-Innovative Presidents-HittHitt took over his post in 1992 and proceeded to grow UCF into the country’s second-largest university, topping 60,000 students in 2012, while greatly increasing minority representation on campus (and doing a better job graduating those students). UCF placed eighty-seventh in our rankings this year, which is impressive when you consider that it was 193rd back in 2006, the first year our lists included it. One large part of this success is DirectConnect, a program that guarantees admission into UCF for students who earn an associate’s degree from one of five partner colleges (including Valencia College, whose president, Sandy Shugart, is also on this list). There are counseling and other programs specifically set up to ease DirectConnect students’ transitions into the university, and partner schools work with UCF to make it easy for students to transfer credits and continue their studies.

SANDY SHUGART
Valencia College
Sept-15-Innovative Presidents-ShugartAs a community college president, Shugart’s challenges are very different from those of most of the others listed here. In addition to working with John Hitt to create DirectConnect in 2005, Shugart overhauled Valencia’s offerings in order to concentrate heavily on students’ first wave of classes, which tend to be the ones that determine whether they’ll stick with their degree programs—typically a big challenge for open-enrollment schools. “What we wanted to accomplish was to recapture the first two weeks of instruction, which [was used before] to hand out syllabuses and send them home—because Lord knows who will be in the class next week,” Shugart told National Journal. “So we said to the faculty, ‘If we do this for you, will you make the first minute of the first meeting of the first class a learning minute?’ ” Students at Valencia set up a graduation plan their first semester on campus, meeting with faculty and taking high-enrollment “gateway courses.” The results have won some high-profile accolades—Valencia received the $600,000 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence in 2011, and Shugart has been highlighted as a “champion of change” by President Obama.

CHERYL HYMAN
City Colleges of Chicago
Sept-15-Innovative Presidents-HymanHyman did not mince words when she took over the seven-community-college system in 2010, introducing a program called “Reinvention.” The system had a graduation rate of 7 percent, compared to a 20.6 percent national average for community colleges, according to Crain’s Chicago Business. Hyman pushed a laser focus on job training, partnering with local businesses and creating highly specialized curricula meant to get students into the workforce. She partnered with Mayor Rahm Emanuel the next year to create specialized programs in the schools’ sprawling campuses—a health care focus at Malcolm X College, transportation at Olive-Harvey—putting students through remedial classes faster and getting them real-world experience. The change hasn’t come without controversy (which is to be expected from any city program Emanuel has had a hand in overhauling), and some observers worry that Hyman is abandoning a key part of the schools’ mission in concentrating on getting students out of school and into companies. But the graduation rate has nearly doubled, and early returns on student retention are also promising. Surpassing that national average is the next step—Hyman’s 2013 five-year plan calls for at least a 20 percent graduation rate by 2018.

Matt Connolly

Matt Connolly is digital managing editor of the Washington Monthly.