What Does It Take to Lead a College?

There’s an interesting presidential search going on at Westfield State College.

A search panel has narrowed a long list of candidates down to five semifinalists — a rather unassuming list except that it includes the current mayor of that city, Richard Sullivan, who has served in that capacity for 14 years now.

His inclusion on the finalists list has sparked some debate in the region about whether Sullivan, or anyone who has ‘mayor’ at the top line of his or her resume, should be considered a candidate to lead a state college. Some would argue no, and one faculty member at the college who attended a meet-the-candidate (Sullivan) session recently suggested that he was “a fish out of water.”

We would disagree, and while we won’t go so far as to endorse Sullivan’s candidacy (we really don’t know enough about the other hopefuls to do so), we will suggest that his bid not be dismissed as merely an attempt by a connected politician to take a plum state job and, in the process, nearly double his current salary and pension. There is simply too much evidence to the contrary in this region to suggest that those from what would be considered outside the realm of academia are not qualified to run academic institutions.

Let’s start with the area’s two community colleges. Holyoke’s was ably led for nearly three decades by David Bartley, longtime state representative and former speaker of the House. He used those connections to help build the college from a physical standpoint — several new buildings were added during his tenure — and also build its reputation as an excellent institution from which to transfer to a four-year college.

At Springfield Technical Community College, Andrew Scibelli, who had some academic background, including stints as registrar and assistant to the president at the college, but was known mostly as a Springfield city councilor and before that a School Committee member, has succeded in putting that institution on the national and even international stage.

Much of the acclaim has come from the decade-old Technology Park, a quasi-public institution located in former Springfield Armory space later occupied by Digital. When DEC closed its doors, Scibelli worked with local and state leaders, many of whom were skeptical about the project, to secure the needed funding for a facility that has become a model for schools across this country and many others.

Still another example of a non-academic achieving success in the public school realm is former state Senate President William Bulger, who ascended to president of UMass. He was controversial, and his recent, successful fight to enlarge his pension by including a housing allowance could have expensive consequences for the Commonwealth. But during his tenure, Bulger brought much-needed funding to the university, as well as greater visibility and recognition as a vital economic engine for the state.

The moral to these stories? It’s simple. While an academic background can certainly help someone sitting in the president’s office, the record clearly shows that those from business and public service can take an institution forward.

Can a mayor handle such a job? Of course. Without oversimplifying things, a mayor handles budgets, departments, and people. It’s the same for a college president. (A school’s faculty can be a very difficult constituency to handle, but that task usually isn’t any easier for those from academia). A mayor also sets a tone for a community and creates, for lack of a better term, a strategic plan. That’s the same job description a college president would have. The mayor is the CEO of a city; likewise for a college president.

Westfield State College has some work to do. It plays a role in Westfield, but certainly not as big a role as it could. Many would suggest that it is a largely untapped resource. Meanwhile, it must work much harder to tell its story in this market and well beyond it.

Is Sullivan the best person do to all this? Perhaps. At the very least he should be given strong consideration. Failure to do so would be a mistake for the search panel and the college.