More U.S. colleges turn to law schools to find their next president

Students walk through the University of Michigan campus, August 10, 2020. REUTERS/Emily Elconin

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  • The past year has seen in uptick in law deans tapped for college or university presidencies
  • Law deans at Boston College, Cornell, UC Irvine and, most recently, SMU have left to run other schools
  • Experts say running a law school and a college require similar skills

(Reuters) – Law deans are in demand when it comes to filling vacant college and university presidencies.

Memphis’ Rhodes College on Monday named Southern Methodist University law dean Jennifer Collins as its next president, making her at least the fifth legal educator to follow that path in the past year. A typical year will see one or two law deans make the move.

“There has been more than normal this year,” said Jim Rosenblatt, dean emeritus of Mississippi College School of Law, who tracks law dean moves. “Their discipline, background and experience makes them logical candidates to go on to a higher university position.”

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Longtime Boston College law dean Vincent Rougeau become president of the College of Holy Cross in July. Eduardo Peñalver assumed the presidency of Seattle University this summer after serving as dean of Cornell Law School since 2014. Former University of California, Irvine School of Law dean Song Richardson is in her sixth month as president of Colorado College, a small liberal arts school in Colorado Springs. And former Mercer University law dean Cathy Cox in October become president of Georgia College and State University.

Running a law school and a university require some overlapping skills, said William Howard, a consultant with recruiting firm Academic Search.

Both roles handle fundraising and manage student, faculty and alumni relations, he said — though overseeing a sports program is a new responsibility for law deans who move into the president’s office. Law deans’ analytical skills and familiarity with regulatory matters also make them attractive, Howard added.

“Being the CEO of a small school that’s fairly independent, has their own alumni base, does fundraising, and has serious accreditation oversight — you sort of get most aspects of a presidency,” he said.

Rhodes College highlighted Collins’ fundraising track record in the announcement of her appointment, saying she had raised $50 million during her tenure as law dean. Officials there also touted her experience managing an annual $49 million budget.

Some former law deans have enjoyed long tenures as university leaders, including Kent Syverud, who has led Syracuse University as chancellor and president since leaving Washington University School of Law in St. Louis in 2014; and former University of Michigan law dean Lee Bollinger, who has served as president of Columbia University since 2002.

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