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Higher Calling

The Rise of Nontraditional Leaders in Academia
Scott C. Beardsley

BUY Cloth · 280 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813940533 · $29.95 · Sep 2017
BUY Ebook · 280 pp. · ISBN 9780813940540 · $29.95 · Sep 2017
BUY Paper · 280 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813941950 · $19.95 · Aug 2018

A revolution has been taking place in the ranks of higher education. University and college presidents—once almost invariably the products of "traditional" scholarly, tenure-track career paths, up through the provost’s office—are rapidly becoming a group with diverse skills and backgrounds. The same is true for many deans and administrative leaders.

In Higher Calling: The Rise of Nontraditional Leaders in Academia, Scott C. Beardsley, dean of the University of Virginia’s prestigious Darden School of Business, offers a new vision of leadership for today’s higher education. Grounded in the author’s own inspirational story of leaving McKinsey & Company in pursuit of a new source of meaning in his professional life, Higher Calling employs research gathered from search firm executives who now play king or queen maker in presidential and dean searches. It also takes into account information from U.S. liberal arts colleges—considered by many to be the bellwethers of change—to explore what set of strengths an institution of higher education needs in a leader in the twenty-first century. Beardsley explores the widely varying definitions and associated numbers of traditional and nontraditional leaders and asks, Why are U.S. colleges and universities hiring nontraditional candidates to lead them into the future? How are the skills required to lead higher education institutions changing? Or has the search process changed, resulting in a more diverse set of candidates?

Providing not only an analysis of nontraditional leaders in higher education but also strategies for developing skills and selecting leaders, Beardsley offers a wealth of information for the modern university in the face of change.


The increasing number of college leaders drawn from "nontraditional," backgrounds has generated much debate and controversy within the academy, but the conversation has largely been anecdotal. Scott Beardsley’s work takes a serious scholarly approach to this topic, drawing extensively on data drawn from case studies and interviews. This insightful book will advance the discussion about higher education leadership far beyond its current reliance on narrow stereotypical thinking.

David W. Breneman is Professor Emeritus of Education and Public Policy at the University of Virginia and Former President of Kalamazoo College

"Scott Beardsley has always been an intrepid and inspirational leader—first at McKinsey, and now at the University of Virginia. In Higher Calling, Scott describes the current shift toward nontraditional academic leadership—told through his own personal experience transitioning from an exceptional career at McKinsey to his new role as dean of the Darden School of Business. His story is one that will deeply resonate with anyone interested in leadership in academia, and inspire everyone else who believes in the potential of a second career."

Dominic Barton, Global Managing Partner, McKinsey & Company

"The increasing speed of change is transforming institutions everywhere, including in higher education. Scott Beardsley’s own journey and analysis of hiring trends of university presidents illuminates important lessons applicable beyond academia. Great leadership talent is the ultimate asset and can be the ultimate variable in determining whether an institution fulfills its mission."

Tracy Wolstencroft, President and CEO, Heidrick & Struggles

"This book should be read by everyone associated with selecting a college president, particularly those daring souls who might consider throwing their hat in the ring for the top job."

Steve Reinemund, Retired Chairman and CEO, PepsiCo, and Former Dean of Business, Wake Forest University

" Higher Calling provides an extremely relevant look at the evolving requirements at the top of the academy. Scott Beardsley’s personal account of his own deliberate entry into the hallowed halls of academia is supported by clear analysis of the trends and conditions influencing today’s leadership profile. This study is both deeply personal and yet far-reaching. It offers invaluable evidence for anyone seeking to understand how the experience, skills, and perspective gained outside of higher education are becoming a source of change within."

Kenneth L. Kring, Co-Managing Director, Global Education Practice

"A very well-written and engaging narrative that is full of both quantitative and qualitative material into which Scott Beardsley gracefully weaves his fascinating personal story. A must-read for members of presidential search committees and those aspiring to a presidency."

Lawrence Schall, President, Oglethorpe College

"The increasing number of college leaders drawn from ‘nontraditional’ backgrounds has generated much debate and controversy within the academy, but the conversation has largely been anecdotal. Scott Beardsley’s work takes a serious scholarly approach to this topic, drawing extensively on data drawn from case studies and interviews. This insightful book will advance the discussion about higher education leadership far beyond its current reliance on narrow stereotypical thinking."

David W. Breneman, Professor Emeritus of Education and Public Policy, University of Virginia, and Former President, Kalamazoo College

"This is a must-read for both aspiring nontraditional presidential candidates and search committees considering those candidates. Beardsley has written a thoughtful analysis of the backgrounds of specific presidents, their experience of the search process, the unique challenges they face as presidents, and the advice they have for other aspirants. He has also provided a glimpse into the future leadership needs of the academy, which are changing daily."

Shelly Weiss Storbeck, Managing Director and Founder, Storbeck/Pimentel and Associates

"Dr. Beardsley examines the factors that undergird the growth in the number of higher education leaders who come from nonacademic career paths. This is a timely book and should be read by search committees seeking academic leaders for their institution and those who aspire to such position, within and outside of the academic world."

John Simon, President, Lehigh University

"Scott Beardsley brings a refreshing approach to the conversation about traditional and nontraditional pathways to university presidential leadership. Not only is his personal experience of making a career transition from McKinsey to the University of Virginia relevant for any candidate considering leadership roles in higher education, but his insightful research also provides an excellent framework and playbook for a university board that is beginning to think about presidential succession. A must-read for any university presidential search committee."

Todd Stottlemyer, Rector, The College of William & Mary

"Scott Beardsley’s book is that rare work in academia that strikes the perfect balance between personal, scholarly, and accessible. By the time one finishes the final chapter, one will understand both what inspires Scott and how this trend of nontraditional leadership in academe is more than a mere fad—it is here to stay.  Higher Calling is an important and necessary contribution to the higher education landscape."

Michael Sorrell, President, Paul Quinn College

"Scott Beardsley has done all of us who work on presidential succession a great favor. Higher education has been tugged, by hard economics, and in its wake, by high-minded but intense constituents, each with different interests, and often different missions. Those tensions play out in searches, in disputes over the legitimacy of ‘traditional’ or ‘nontraditional’ candidates. The career paths of candidates become surrogates for a deeper struggle. Scott deftly explores the varied definitions in use and guides us all to understand that it is both the person and the experience, tailored to particular settings and particular challenges, that are critical, not the one path or the other."

John Isaacson, Chair, Isaacson, Miller

"The promise and possibility of nontraditional academic leaders are at the forefront of Dean Beardsley’s research. Stakeholders in the future of higher education, both nationally and internationally, should find this concept timely and exceedingly relevant."

John R. Strangfeld, Chairman and CEO, Prudential Financial, and Former Chair, Board of Trustees, Susquehanna University

[ Chronicle]: What do universities do well that the business world might learn from?

[Beardsley]: Mission matters a lot, and higher education understands that better than many businesses. A lot of people are intrinsically motivated and not purely extrinsically motivated. I’m a big believer in the power of intrinsic motivation. In other words, noble purpose, raison d’être, doing things for the right reasons. Sometimes business can forget that.

Chronicle of Higher Education

For 26 years, Scott Beardsley was a McKinsey worker bee who fulfilled his dream and made queen, with a place on its board.

In 2015, he realised a second ambition; he became dean of the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia... Higher ­Calling marks his psychological passage from consultant to dean.

Times Higher Education

Alumni of the management consultancy McKinsey & Co are so adept at finding roles for themselves that it is little surprise to discover that the dean of the University of Virginia Darden School of Business is among their number. But Scott Beardsley is more than just another former high-flying consultant in a prestigious second career. He is an example of the growing phenomenon of the 'nontraditional leader' in academia.... [A]s one might expect from a McKinseyite, Beardsley is not just an example of the phenomenon, he has written an analysis of it.... [In Higher Calling he] argues that whether a leader is traditional or nontraditional matters less than whether they are the right person for a particular institution at a particular time.


Beardsley covers his research into which types of institutions are hiring nontraditional presidents, his research into why colleges hire nontraditional presidents and why he believes debates about hiring traditional or nontraditional presidents are the wrong discussions to have.

Inside Higher Ed

In his epilogue, Beardsley recalls his own experience becoming dean at the University of Virginia. During the transition and first year, he recounts what he had learned from his predecessor and how he met with various stakeholders. It finishes the story that he started in the prologue where he goes to great lengths of his experience at McKinsey and how it helped him for his current academic position.... Higher Calling opens the conversation about the need for new and different leadership in American higher education.


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