Hiring chancellors for University of Wisconsin System campuses with non-academic backgrounds appears to be a priority for John Behling, the new president of the UW Board of Regents.

Calling the hiring of administrators from outside academia to lead universities “the latest trend,” Behling announced he was forming a panel to identify ways to “streamline” the hiring process and “expand” the pool of candidates to include those from other backgrounds when the Board of Regents met in Milwaukee earlier this month.

It was the first meeting run by Behling, an Eau Claire lawyer who represents frac sand mining companies. He was elected president in June.

The fortunes of campus chancellors and presidents from outside academia has been getting a lot of attention lately, as state funding of public institutions tightens and some question the traditional mission, high cost and value of higher education.

But don't mistake that for being a trend, said Jonathan Turk, senior policy research analyst with the American Council on Education, a federal lobbying group on higher education issues based in Washington, D.C.

ACE’s 2011 American College President Study found that 20 percent of those surveyed had come from a job outside academia, up from 13 percent in 2006.

The percentage was down to 15 percent in the 2016 survey, released last month.

And that number is more in keeping with the percentage of college presidents from outside academia traditionally reported: from 14 percent in 2001 to 13 percent back in 1986.

“When I look at the numbers, I don’t see a trend that is increasing or decreasing,” Turk said. “I see a fairly constant number of presidents coming from outside the academy,” from business and industry and the government.

College presidents from business or government sometimes struggle to adapt to academic culture. One cautionary tale is Timothy M. Wolfe, the former tech executive who was forced to resign from the University of Missouri in 2015 after the mishandling of a campus racial incident that had the football team threatening to boycott. Wolfe was hired to “sell” the importance of the school and run it efficiently, The Atlantic reported. But Wolfe acted too autocratically, say some observers and failed to win support of faculty who are often suspicious of administrators from outside academia.

Other college presidents from different backgrounds have better track records: Former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has been president at Purdue University since 2013 and former businessman Bruce Benson has led the University of Colorado since 2008.

Behling named newly-elected Board of Regents vice president Drew Petersen, a telecommunications executive, to lead the “work group” on hiring of chancellors. Board of Regents staff said this week the group’s makeup and meeting schedule have not been finalized.

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Behling is no stranger to policy revamps that spark resistance.

As Board of Regents vice president in 2015, Behling led a work group that revised policy to give campus administrators greater latitude in dismissing tenured professors, drawing stiff opposition from faculty at many UW campuses.

As he assumed the presidency, Behling remarked that the tenure police revision process was not easy, and drew criticism, but that by aligning with expectations of Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislative leaders, has resulted in a proposed budget most favorable to UW in a decade.

The tenure changes, Behling said, were “absolutely the right move.”

“Every issue going forward will be designed to keep our schools competitive, world-class and accessible to all,” he said. Hiring chancellors shouldn’t take months, and the extended process typically nets a pool of academics only and “sometimes results in not being able to recruit the best and brightest."

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