Value of foreign-born university leaders is rising

In his inaugural speech as president of Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, Benjamin Akande spoke of a world that is "rapidly shifting", a world that is "harsh and competitive" and a world that is "empowering and liberating". As he encouraged the campus community he now leads to move toward what he calls a "Yes World", his message was ultimately one of hope and possibility on a global scale.

The appointment last year of Nigerian-born Akande underscores Westminster's embrace of its international heritage.

The campus takes pride in its role as host, 70 years ago – in 1946 – to former British prime minister Winston Churchill. It is there that Churchill made his famous speech decrying the descent of the "Iron Curtain" across Europe with the creation of a Soviet Bloc of communist-controlled countries separated from the rest of the world, and the campus has since hosted former Soviet Union leader, president Mikhail Gorbachev, and former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher on its campus.

It describes its mission today as "educating and inspiring young leaders to change the world". Of the nearly 1,000 students at the liberal arts college, 14% come from abroad, representing more than 75 countries.

Akande joins an ever-expanding and diversifying club of US university presidents who were born outside the 50 states.

In New Jersey, Seton Hall University's president is from the Philippines; Stevens Institute of Technology’s is from Iran. Two years ago, a native of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago was named president of Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, DC.

And within the past five years, natives of India have been tapped to lead a number of large US research universities, including the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the University of California at San Diego, Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, the University of Texas at Arlington and Lawrence Technological University near Detroit.

Valuable credential

While place of birth may not be a deciding factor when search committees look for a new president, a foreign-born status has become a valuable credential, particularly as higher education becomes an increasingly global enterprise.

In a statement last year announcing that Andrew Hamilton, a Brit from Oxford, would head New York University, the board praised his understanding of the school's "distinct global presence". When George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, hired Angel Cabrera, a Spaniard, in 2012, the chair of the search committee noted his "impressive global vision".

“The cross-cultural experience of a foreign-born president gives them in most cases a head start in understanding why international education is so important,” says Patti McGill Peterson, who oversees international initiatives for the American Council on Education, a non-profit group representing higher education.

It also reflects a natural evolution: As US universities look increasingly abroad to attract more undergraduate and graduate students, international students increasingly feed the pipeline that leads to top administrative and leadership positions in academia. With few exceptions, foreign-born presidents rose through the ranks of US higher education.

Akande, for example, earned his bachelor degree at Wayland Baptist University in Plainview, Texas, and a doctorate in economics from the University of Oklahoma. Before joining Westminster last year, he served 15 years as dean of the business school at Webster University in St Louis, where his responsibilities included expanding and exploring international partnerships.

"As we have diversified our institutions over the past generation or two, we are likely to see more and more [international students, faculty and staff] ascend into leadership roles," says Lucy Apthorp Leske, a senior partner with the executive search firm Witt/Kieffer, where she specialises in higher education. She expects to see proportional growth rather than a dramatic opening of floodgates.

Favoured fields

Leske also notes that presidential searches in recent years have favoured scholars in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, and that is where many foreign-born students have concentrated their studies.

Recent data from autumn 2015 on enrolment from the US-based Council of Graduate Schools hint at how trends may be unfolding. Engineering remains the most popular field of study for international graduate students, the council said in a report released last month.

While most of the foreign graduate students entering US universities were pursuing masters or certificate-level degrees, 47% of South Korean students, and 44% of students from the Middle East and North Africa entered doctoral programmes. More than one third of international doctoral students (35%) were from China, followed by India (12%).

Akande’s vision for Westminster's global aspirations blends the practical application of the liberal arts with skills that he says “are in line with what the market wants”. Already in the works is a public-private partnership with Oyo State in Nigeria, which funds and oversees the Ladoke Akintola University of Technology, a public university in Southwest Nigeria.

The partnership will facilitate exchanges of students and faculty, with a focus on information technology, cybersecurity and the sciences, based on needs identified by his counterparts in Nigeria.

Also, Westminster is poised this month to test drive a bachelor degree in leadership designed for working adults. The programme will be delivered to employees at a nearby corporate office, not yet announced, who may have earned some college credits but never completed their college degree. Eventually, Akande says, he intends to look for opportunities to deliver the programme, along with a liberal arts philosophy, around the world.

Creative approach

Akande, whose parents earned doctorates in the United States, says he wants to build on the creative approach to education that attracted him to the United States for college in the first place. "American higher education is not just in the classroom,” he says. "That has informed my perspective on where higher education should go today."

Asked why he took the job of college president, Akande says it is a way for him to give back. And his foreign-born status, he adds, allows him – and his foreign-born peers – to both appreciate what makes US higher education unique and to challenge the status quo.

"We have lived in two worlds," he says. "We have lived in the world of America and of our respective native countries. We bring to this job a very diverse perspective, one that understands and appreciates the value of American higher education. But one that also says, 'We need to think differently'."