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College Presidents as Corporate Board Directors

May 20, 2024 2:50 PM | Theresa Boyce (Administrator)

By Jonathan Peri, Ph.D., J.D., President of Manor College and Lisa Quateman, CEO of Voyager Advisory LLC and Board Director for public, private, and non-profit organizations.

As companies strive to bring varied voices into their corporate boardrooms, new sources of talent have emerged in recent years, from, for example, industry specialists to military leaders.  A rich source of talent exists among leaders in academia, where, contrary to assumptions about academics in so-called ivory towers, we find that many college and university leaders bring superb business experience and innovation into the boardrooms that they serve.

In addition to their traditional roles and NGO engagements, college and university presidents increasingly serve on corporate boards, both public and private.  They are selected for these positions because their experiences and skills encompass significant depth in the business of education, much of which is transferable to other industries.

Higher education has a lot of moving parts, fundraising, recruitment (sales), facilities, finance and investments, marketing, education as a product and service (think university hospitals and research universities), student services, information technology, human resources, diversity, equity, and inclusion, employees with multi-faceted functions, and a governance structure that intentionally shares power and places a focus on environmental, social, and governance issues.  Presidents sit atop at least seven or eight operations, even at the smallest institutions.

As board leaders, here’s why higher education presidents get selected as directors:

Strategic Vision & Leadership: University presidents excel in developing, implementing, and leading strategic plans. Living within a shared governance model, Presidents are consensus builders inside and outside of the strategic planning context.   They negotiate the best pathways forward emerging from a diversity of ideas, balancing the concepts developed by lifetime organizational employees with the fresh eyes of new recruits.  These attributes help corporate boards facing dynamic markets and demanding stakeholders, including vocal workforces.

Financial Acumen: Responsible for significant budgets and major fundraising efforts, university presidents have a deep understanding of financial analysis, resource allocation, and investment management. This fiscal expertise is invaluable for companies seeking board members with the ability to assess financial health, guide investment strategies, and navigate complex financial decisions.

Governance & Risk Management: University presidents are well-versed in the principles of good governance. National and statewide associations regularly provide presidents with cutting edge professional development.  Presidents oversee intricate board structures and navigate compliance regulations while balancing competing interests within their own institutions. This experience enables them to advise on board effectiveness, mitigate risk, and protect the organization's reputation.  This tends to be particularly true when the president is also an attorney or accountant, as is increasingly the case in higher ed.

Crisis Management: As we have seen in the media recently, leading educational institutions involves dealing with unforeseen challenges and public scrutiny, much of which reflects broader geo-political issues The wisdom gained from these experiences is transferrable and these experiences cultivate the composure needed for corporate boards facing difficult situations. College and university presidents are typically adept at thoughtful decision-making under pressure and communicating effectively to restore trust.

Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion (DEI) Expertise: Presidents often champion DEI initiatives, overseeing policy development that shapes organizational culture. Most corporations now embrace DEI as a core value, though others have trepidation. College presidents are used to spirited discussions and moving adversarial scenarios to dialogues of “creative friction,” where workable, realistic outcomes are an outgrowth of voices being heard.

Community & Stakeholder Engagement: Successful presidents excel at collaboration with diverse stakeholders, including not only traditional on-campus groups, but also government officials and local communities.  They have developed excellent communications skills. This experience translates seamlessly to corporate boards who regularly interact with investors, employees, customers, regulators, and the wider community.  This talent also supports development of senior managers who are interfacing with these parties as well as company lenders and service providers.  These board members offer a valuable sounding board and mentorship opportunities to internal leaders.

Global Outlook: Many universities have international partnerships, but this is just the tip of the iceberg.  Presidents pride themselves on being not only well apprised of global affairs, but actively engaged in them, often as a voice of reason and conscientious direction. Presidents gain sensitivity to global trends and cross-cultural communication, an asset in today's interconnected business world.

Keenness with Emerging Trends: Familiarity with university level leading-edge research keeps presidents at the forefront of technological, social, and economic opportunities. These insights can help boards stay ahead of disruptions and identify innovative pathways.  To succeed in their careers, presidents must demonstrate curiosity and a commitment to lifelong learning, which make them ideal role models in boardrooms and at the companies they serve.

Network: Due to their many skills and attributes noted above, plus the job requirement of being relationship-oriented, presidents have significant social networks, with access to others who can serve as helpful partners and community builders.  When doors open, corporations thrive, and shareholders and stakeholders with them.

In summary, college and university presidents offer astuteness, esteem, experience and knowledge that enhances a corporate board’s outcomes. Their leadership skills, financial expertise, connections, commitment to inclusivity, and their ability to manage complex environments make them ideal board members.


Dr. Jonathan Peri is the President of Manor College, a liberal arts institution in the Philadelphia metro region.  He is a “double doctor” Ph.D. in organizational leadership and J.D. / attorney.  He has served on several boards including as Chairman of Pennsylvania’s Council of Higher Education on its State Board of Education, as Lead Advisory Director for First State Bank of Texas, as a Member of Pennsylvania’s 529 College Savings TAP Board (investments at the time were $6.8B and continue to grow), and on numerous nonprofit boards. He is board certified by CEO Trust’s Board Trust.

Lisa Quateman currently serves on the boards of directors of AG Mortgage Investment Trust [NYSE: MITT], ITR Concession Company LLC, Lyles Diversified, Inc., NACD Pacific Southwest Chapter, and on the Advisory Boards of Scherzer International Corporation and the UCLA Ziman Center for Real Estate.  She is CEO Trust board faculty. She is a retired financial services attorney with extensive governance experience honed over many years representing public and private companies, financial institutions, and government entities, and serving on numerous boards of directors, including the UCLA Alumni Association.  She is based in the Los Angeles area and holds B.A. and J.D. degrees from the University of California at Los Angeles.
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