A college or university president, as the designated leader of an institution of higher learning, is charged with many, many responsibilities. College presidents have always been charged with ensuring the highest standards of scholarship and teaching excellence at the institutions they lead. Moreover, they are expected to uphold a school’s long-standing symbols and traditions.
But in recent years their job description has increased precipitously. A thriving athletic program, for instance, can greatly boost a school’s name-recognition, helping with recruitment of students, fundraising, and even in justifying tuition raises. College presidents thus find their focus extending far beyond “mere” academics to include everything from athletic programs to campus beautification to dining amenities.
The Most Interesting College Presidents…like mayors of rather peculiar towns… Indeed, a modern college or university campus is its own peculiar town and its president is the town mayor credited with anything and everything there that goes right (as well as wrong). As with the mayors of American cities, some of whom are enormously successful and others less so, we find that college and university presidents likewise exhibit many leadership styles and have varying degrees of success in leading their “towns.”
The college and university presidents on this list are all colorful personalities who not only lead their institutions effectively but do so with a panache and verve that excites their campus community. These are presidents with intriguing life stories, with impressive records of accomplishment, with charisma and vision that inspires faculty, staff, and students to strive for new heights.
Read on and be inspired!
The Most Interesting College Presidents
1Gwendolyn Boyd, Alabama State University
There’s no place like home for Montgomery, Alabama, native Gwendolyn Boyd, who has returned to her undergraduate alma mater as president. Alabama State University must have been glad to have her home after her 30+ years spent as an engineer at the Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratories: How often does a board agree on anything unanimously, much less the position of college president?
Boyd, who is single, came back to ASU in January 2014 and signed a contract that contained an interesting clause, one that prohibited her from having overnight visitors (of a romantic nature).
- First female president of Alabama State University
- First African-American female to earn a master’s in mechanical engineering from Yale
- Appointed by President Obama in 2014 to the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African-Americans
- An ordained itinerant elder in the AME Church
2Andrew H. Card, Jr., Franklin Pierce University
It’s not often that the White House Chief of Staff becomes a college president. Andrew Card has served the White House Republican administrations since the early 1980s, beginning with President Reagan.
Card went to Texas A&M as the dean of the George W. Bush School of Government and Public Service before coming to Franklin Pierce. During his time on the FPU board of trustees, he worked to cultivate a stronger program in mass communications.
- Second-longest-serving Presidential chief of staff in modern history
- Member of the Union Pacific Railroad Board of Directors
- An ordained minister in the Methodist church
- Delivered the message to George W. Bush that the 9/11 terrorist attacks had just happened
3Joseph I. Castro, California State University Fresno
As a grandson of Mexican migrant farm workers turned university president, Joseph I. Castro has presided over California State University Fresno since 2013. In addition to serving as President of the university, Castro is also a Professor of Educational Leadership in the Kremen School of Education and Human Development.
Castro was instrumental in helping to raise $43 million in one fundraising year, as well as in helping to erect the Armenian Genocide Monument—the first of its kind in the U.S. A native of the San Joaquin Valley, Castro is the first in his family to graduate from college.
- The first Central Valley native to serve in this leadership position
- The first Latino president of CSU Fresno
- At age 47, the youngest president in the California State University system
- Recipient of International Cooperation Dedication Award from the Beijing Municipal Education Commission (2011)
4Michael M. Crow, Arizona State University
Ever since Dr. Crow left Manhattan and Columbia University to come to the desert in 2002, he has sought to reinvent the concept of higher education in the U.S. by developing a “New American University”—one where students from all kinds of backgrounds and ability levels can study at a top public research institution.
Under his presidency, ASU has tripled its budget for research, and established initiatives such as the Biodesign Institute and the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, attracting in the process twice as many National Merit Scholars and low-income students alike.
- Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science
- Member of the Council on Foreign Relations
- Member of the U.S. Department of Commerce National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship
- Founding director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University
- ASU ranks among the 100 Best Universities in the World
5Gregory L. Fenves, University of Texas at Austin
Americans are seeing more and more college presidents earn salaries at the $1 million mark and up, but Dr. Fenves had no interest in the $1 million salary UT offered him to become its President. In fact, he rejected the offer, and accepted a salary of $750,000 instead!
Fenves was named to the UT presidency just this past spring. Prior to this appointment, he had served as Provost, where he pushed engineering faculty and UT officials to make more efforts toward licensing intellectual property developed on campus.
- Member of the National Academy of Engineering, the highest national honor awarded to engineers in the United States
- Holds the Cockrell Family Chair in Engineering #15 at UT Austin
6Jane Fernandes, Guilford College
You’d think that one of the major proponents for deaf education, who happens to be deaf herself, would be a sure winner for the presidency at Gallaudet, a college with a primarily deaf student body. That’s what the board thought, too, and that’s why they were taken aback when the Gallaudet community protested their decision, claiming (among other things) that Jane Fernandes was “not deaf enough.” Fernandes, who was born deaf, uses speech, speechreading, and American Sign Language to interact and communicate with the hearing community as president of Guilford College in North Carolina.
When Fernandes was a young girl, her mother—who was also deaf—taught her how to speak, so she was thus raised orally, and learned sign language at the age of 23. She holds advanced degrees in French and comparative literature (including the Ph.D. in comparative literature), and has worked to promote diversity and inclusion during her tenure in academia.
- Founding coordinator of the University of Hawaii’s Sign Language/English Interpreter Training Program
- First female president of Guilford College
- One of the nation’s leading proponents of learning American Sign Language
- Uses the services of an American Sign Language interpreter for added accuracy in communication on campus
7E. Gordon Gee, West Virginia University
Elwood Gordon Gee is a familiar face on the university scene, having served multiple terms at multiple universities over the course of his career. He is currently the president of West Virginia University, where he also spent his earliest stint as a university president from 1981–1985. From there, he went to preside over the University of Colorado for five years, then to Ohio State for seven years, then two at Brown, then to Vanderbilt for seven years, and finally at Ohio State where he presided from 2007–2013. Note that he was not serving in any ordinary administrative position at these schools—he was the head honcho at each one, which certainly speaks to his popularity and ability, in spite of the many moves over the years.
The Utah-born, Mormon-raised Gee made waves at many schools for expensive renovations on the campus president’s homes he and his wife lived in; still, he left a bigger impact on these schools than just an upgraded, cushy living pad for the next guy to move into:
- Named to Time magazine’s top 10 college presidents in the U.S. for 2010
- One of the youngest college presidents ever at the age of 37 during his first run at WVU
- Has held more university presidencies than any other American academic
- Was named a judicial fellow and assistant to the Supreme Court in 1972
- Recipient of the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award
8Amy Gutmann, University of Pennsylvania
As the daughter of an immigrant who escaped from Nazi Germany to Bombay and settled in the U.S. after World War II, Amy Gutmann is fearless. Being a natural-born leader is in her genes. And she’s done such a tremendous job at Penn that her contract has been renewed until 2019.
Gutmann came to Penn from Princeton in 2004, and since that time, she has attracted world-renowned scholars to the Ivy League university, adding more than 100 new professorships. Gutmann has not only helped sponsored research funding grow 23 percent; she’s also spearheaded one of the best fundraising campaigns in the history of higher education, achieving the goal of raising $3.5 million almost a year and a half ahead of schedule. She’s also secured the largest monetary gift in Penn history: $225 million from philanthropist couple Ray and Ruth Perelman.
- The first Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor at Princeton
- Founding director of the Princeton University Center for Human Values, among the first and best-endowed university-wide multi-disciplinary ethics centers in the world
- Recipient of the Harvard University Centennial Medal
- Named by Newsweek as one of the 150 Women Who Shake the World in 2011
- Penn ranks among the 100 Best Universities in the World
9John L. Hennessy, Stanford University
Power broker. Computer scientist. Stanford University President. Nope, not talking about three separate people here—all of these terms belong to John Hennessy.
Under his leadership, the school built its endowment to reach $21 billion and earned more than $928 million in cash donations (only surpassed by Harvard). Hennessy helped the school expand its interdisciplinary research in biosciences and offer free tuition to families who earn less than $125,000. That’s a pretty sweet deal for families, but not everyone can benefit from this: the school has become the most selective in the country under Hennessy’s leadership, accepting only 5.05 percent of applicants.
- Known as the “godfather of the Silicon Valley”
- A founder father of MIPS Computer Systems Inc. and of Atheros
- Member of the Board of Directors for Google and Cisco
- Stanford ranks among The 100 Best Universities in the World.
10Christopher B. Howard, Hampden-Sydney College
Christopher Howard is not only one of the youngest college presidents in the United States; he also happens to be a Rhodes Scholar, an Air Force veteran, and an All-American high school football player.
Dr. Howard presides over Hampden-Sydney College, a private men’s school in Virginia. Since coming to H-S, the school has seen record enrollment numbers—the highest in the history of the college. Along with his wife Barbara, Howard co-founded Impact Young Lives, a non-profit group that provides scholarships and travel opportunities to college students of color in South Africa.
Dr. Howard took office as president at Hampden-Sydney in 2009 and lead HSC through the challenges following the Great Recession. A new chapter in Howard’s story will begin in February of 2016, as he will then take the helm as President of Robert Morris University, outside Pittsburgh, PA.
- Recipient of the Air Force Academy’s Campbell Award, the highest academic award in the country presented to a senior football player
- Named by the Library of Virginia a 2010 African-American Trailblazer in Virginia History
- First African-American president at Hampden-Sydney
- Senior adviser on African Affairs at the Albright Stonebridge Group
11Freeman A. Hrabowski III, University of Maryland Baltimore County
When Hrabowski was a 12-year-old boy in Birmingham, Alabama, he pleaded with his parents to allow him to march as a youth advocate in the Children’s Crusade for civil rights. After a mass arrest at the march—children included—young Hrabowski spent five days and nights in jail, and did his best to comfort himself and the other incarcerated children. This experience left a profound mark on his life, undoubtedly, leading Hrabowski to lead other young, minority students towards a brighter path.
Since 1992, he has presided over UMBC, and has spent much of his time developing UMBC into a strong, competitive research university and encouraging African-American students to pursue STEM studies and graduate studies. For six consecutive years, U.S. News & World Report has named UMBC as the first-place, up-and-coming university in the United States.
- 2011 recipient of the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Academic Leadership Award
- McGraw Prize in Education
- U.S. Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring
- Top American Leaders by the Washington Post and the Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership
12Shirley Ann Jackson, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson of RPI is more than the nation’s highest-paid college president: she is the woman Time magazine calls “the ultimate role model for women in science.”
A theoretical physicist, Jackson has proven a trailblazer in every aspect of her career. She has been the driving force behind the explosive growth in funds, faculty, and programming at RPI since 1999. Since that time, her Rensselaer Plan has received more than $1.25 billion in invested funds. Jackson secured a $360 million anonymous, unrestricted gift in 2001; essentially, she has overseen and raised more funds than anyone else in the school’s history. During her tenure, Jackson has hired more than 325 new tenure-track faculty and implemented award-winning student life programs. In all her spare time, Jackson finds time to serve on multiple boards, including the New York Stock Exchange, IBM, and FedEx.
- First African-American woman to receive a doctorate from MIT
- First African-American women to lead a top-ranked research university
- Co-Chair of President’s Intelligence Advisory Board for Barack Obama
- Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, appointed by Bill Clinton
- Recipient of 53 honorary doctorate degrees
- Highest-earning college president with a salary of more than $7 million
- Ranked among the 50 Greatest Living Geniuses
13Walter M. Kimbrough, Dillard University
Known as the “Hip Hop Prez” thanks to his Twitter handle, Dr. Walter Kimbrough is one of the few college presidents known for using social media to its greatest advantage.
Recognized for his research and writings on historically black colleges and universities, Dr. Kimbrough came to Dillard University in 2012 after serving for seven years as the president of Philander Smith College, when he was one of the youngest university presidents of our time.
- Named one of the 25 college presidents to follow on Twitter (bachelorsdegree.com, 2010)
- Named by Diverse Issues in Higher Education as one of 25 to Watch (2009)
- Made the coveted Ebony magazine Power 100 list of doers and influencers in the African-American community (2010)
14Wallace D. Loh, University of Maryland College Park
Wallace Loh has lived on four continents and in several states in the U.S, has earned three advanced degrees, and has presided over the University of Maryland College Park since 2010. For such an accomplished, cosmopolitan man, he came from a humble family that instilled traditional values in him, values that have never left him and have served him well.
Born in China and raised in Lima, Peru, Loh’s parents, who ran a grocerystore, handed over their entire $300 life savings to their son so he could begin a new life in the U.S. You could say that their ROI has been huge! Still, even when his academic career was about to take off and Iowa was ready to offer him a Provost position, Loh took time away to care for his aging mother, which he did until she died a few weeks before her 100th birthday.
While at UMCP, Loh has worked for strategic partnerships in innovation, revitalizing College Park, making education affordable, and moving the school to the Big Ten conference—big work for a big job at a big school. Loh has been up to the challenge by applying hard work, good ethics, and perseverance.
- Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
- Former advisory board chair, U.S. Department of Homeland Security
- Named one of the most popular college presidents in America by Huffington Post
- UMCP ranks among the 100 Best Universities in the World
15Glenn F. McConnell, College of Charleston
Despite the fact that Glenn McConnell supported research initiatives at South Carolina universities during his 32-year tenure in the South Carolina Senate—and even though he was the state’s Lieutenant Governor for several years and has received numerous awards for his work with the Office on Aging—some still see him as a controversial figure. How can this be?
It is because McConnell, who is a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, has been a staunch supporter of preserving Southern history, including the flying of the Confederate flag at the state capitol building—a story that has gained national attention. In spite of the controversy, however, McConnell was appointed President of the College of Charleston (his alma mater) in 2014.
- PAARP Excellence in Advocacy Award
- Vision Award (South Carolina Aging in Place Coalition)
- Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce Leader in Advancing Economic Development
- Senator John Heinz Memorial Award (National Adult Day Services Association)
- College of Charleston Founders’ Medal
16Michael A. McRobbie, Indiana University
Since 2007, Michael McRobbie has served as the president of Indiana University, leading more than 115,000 students enrolled at the main campus in Bloomington and all of the university’s satellite campuses. During his tenure, he has established six new schools—including the School of Philanthropy, which is the first of its kind in the nation!
Prior to coming to IU, the Australian-born computer scientist founded the Australian National University’s Centre for Information Science Research in Canberra.
- Made a Sagamore of the Wabash, Indiana’s highest honor, in 2007
- Named an officer of the Order of Australia
- Became a U.S. Citizen in October 2010
- Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
- Recipient of the Anti-Defamation League’s Man of Achievement Award in 2014
- With IU, helped found the South East European University in Macedonia (2011)
- In 2013, Thailand’s National Institute for Development Administration awarded him its Prince Naradhip Bongsprabandha Plaque for services to international education
17Santa J. Ono, University of Cincinnati
When Inside Higher Education names someone the most notable college president of 2015, you take note. Santa J. Ono came to preside over the University of Cincinnati in 2012, and since that time, UC has been named Public University of the Year by the Washington center and has risen more than any other university in U.S. News & World Report‘s college rankings, jumping ahead an astonishing 27 places.
Ono is known for his ability to harness social media to leverage institutional objectives. Additionally, he is one of the few college presidents who forgo additional compensation of some sort: he’s declined his bonus/raise each year (a sum of hundreds of thousands of dollars) and instead requests that it go towards a charitable project.
- First Asian-American president of University of Cincinnati
- First Asian-American president in Ohio
- Recipient of the Pharmacia International Award in Allergy Research (the top international prize awarded to inflammation researchers under the age of 40)
- Has a Klout Score of 83, more than any other university president on Earth
- Maintains an active research lab that focuses on the immune system and eye disease, his major areas of research interest
- Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academy of Inventors, Royal Academy of Medicine, and the Royal Academy of Chemistry, among others
18Eduardo J. Padrón, Miami Dade College
The leader of America’s largest community college—as well as the largest institution of higher learning in the state of Florida—is a true revolutionary.
Eduardo Padrón has led Miami Dade College for 20 years. Under his leadership, the college now offers students the chance to complete their four-year degree and to participate in honors programs. Additionally, Padrón has renovated the college prep curriculum for students who are not well-prepared for collegiate work. He’s also formed a collaboration with local professionals to provide mentor programming.
As an economist-turned-college president, Padrón continues to develop new, progressive initiatives that are truly revolutionizing and re-imagining the student experience. A refugee from Cuba who arrived in the U.S. when he was 15 years old, Padrón is dedicated to serving the underserved.
- Named to Time magazine’s 10 Best College Presidents list in 2009
- Considered one of the world’s most influential Hispanics by People magazine
- Recipient of the Washington Center’s Higher Education Civic Engagement Award
- Named one of the most influential college presidents in the U.S. by the Washington Post in 2011
- Current board chair for the American Council on Education
- Selected to serve on posts of national prominence by six American Presidents
19Kenneth W. Starr, Baylor University
Anyone following the news in the mid-1990s would know the name Ken Starr, the chief investigator of former President Clinton’s escapades. As Independent Counsel, Starr was responsible for investigating Whitewater, Travelgate, and other alleged crimes and misdemeanors of Bill Clinton in and out of the White House, including lying to Federal investigators about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. It was the Starr Report that led directly to Clinton’s impeachment in 1998.
Since that time, Starr has returned to private practice and to academia, eventually serving as a Professor of Constitutional Law and as Dean of Pepperdine University’s Law School. Currently, Starr presides over Baylor University, where he has served since the fall of 2010. Within his first three years, Starr raised more than $100 million for student scholarships—five months sooner than anticipated.
- Served as Court of Appeals judge for George H.W. Bush
- Has argued 36 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court
- Author of First Among Equals: The Supreme Court in American Life (Grand Central Publishing, 2002)
- Member of the board of trustees of the Baylor College of Medicine
- Named Time’s “Man of the Year” in 1998 (along with Bill Clinton)
20Mark S. Wrighton, Washington University in St. Louis
A young man excelled as a chemistry student; he went on to became an outstanding chemist; he led one of the best chemistry departments in the world—and on and on it goes. Hard work, genius, and determination will get you everywhere, as seen in the case of Dr. Mark Wrighton.
When Mark Wrighton came to Washington University in 1995, he had already made quite a name for himself in the world of science. A multi-award-winning chemist, Wrighton received national recognition for his research, contributions, and achievements. He began his career as an assistant chemistry professor at MIT, became chair of the department, and eventually led the school’s academics as Provost. At Washington University, Wrighton helped conduct and oversee two monumental, multi-year spanning fundraising initiatives; one has already achieved its goal plus surplus, bringing in $1.55 billion.
- Recipient of the MIT School of Science Teaching Prize in 1987
- Awarded a MacArthur Prize Fellowship in 1983
- Featured in Fortune magazine for his efforts in duplicating photosynthesis (1983)
- Recipient of the E.O. Lawrence from the U.S. Department of Energy in 1983
- Washington University ranks among the 100 Best Universities in the World