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Paul R. Portney

Paul R. Portney

Paul R. Portney is Dean of the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona, where he also holds the Halle Chair in Leadership.

The higher educators: Steven Sample and John Sexton

Question: Considering all spheres of endeavor, who would you nominate as Leader of the Year in 2010? Why?

For leaders of the year in 2010, I nominate Steven Sample (who recently stepped down as president of the University of Southern California) and John Sexton (the president of New York University). While both operate in a world that is obscure to many Americans, higher education is at once critically important and also notoriously resistant to change. (In what other realm would people celebrate something as important as a graduation by donning the same ridiculous caps and gowns as were worn 1,000 years ago?)

Sample and Sexton took what were at best average institutions and transformed them into top-notch undergraduate and graduate universities, in 20 years (Sample) and 10 years (Sexton). Both universities have become much more sought-after and selective, have seen the caliber of their faculties soar, and have experienced great growth in alumni giving, endowment size and grant revenue.

Big deal, someone might say. What's so hard about that? A lot, that's what. Like government, universities are filled with employees that are often nearly impossible to fire; they are bastions of political correctness that make management more challenging than in the military or the for-profit world; and their "customers" are 18 to 25 year-olds (and these students' nearly-tethered parents). Not the easiest groups to please.

True, both Sample and Sexton have had the luxury of presiding over private institutions. Thus, they are free from the dramatic swings in state funding and occasional idiotic meddling of state legislators that can plague presidents of state universities. But the private status of their respective universities brings its own set of problems, too. It is outstanding leadership, purely and simply, that has moved USC and NYU way up in the "league tables."

We'll need stronger, not weaker, universities in the United States in the years ahead. Here's hoping that more leaders like Sample and Sexton emerge--and soon!

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By Paul R. Portney

 |  December 22, 2010; 3:38 PM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals , Education leadership , Organizational Culture Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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