Foreign schools are hiring presidents from abroad

When next year's crop of high-school graduates arrive at Oxford University in the fall of 2009, they'll be joined by a new face: Andrew Hamilton, the 55-year-old provost of Yale, who will become Oxford's vice chancellor—a position equivalent to university president in the United States, with responsibility for the day-to-day running of the prestigious institution.

Hamilton, a distinguished chemist, isn't the only educator crossing the pond. Others include Louise Richardson, who was executive dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard before her appointment as principal of St. Andrews, Scotland's oldest university. Schools in France, Egypt, Singapore and elsewhere have also recently made top-level hires from abroad.

Higher education has become a big and competitive business these days, and like so many businesses it's gone global. Until recently, few schools recruited across borders. "You really had to pick through the evidence to find examples," says Ken Kring, head of the education practice at Korn/Ferry International, the world's largest corporate recruiter. Yet the talent flow isn't universal. High-level personnel tend to head in only one direction: outward from the United States.

The chief reason is that American schools just don't tend to seriously consider looking abroad. For example, when the board of the University of Colorado searched for a new president to oversee its three campuses and 52,000 students, it wanted a leader familiar with the state government, the source of a hefty chunk of the university's budget. "We didn't do any sort of global consideration," says Patricia Hayes, the board's chair. The board ultimately picked Bruce Benson, a 69-year-old Colorado businessman and political activist who is likely to excel at the main task of modern university presidents: fund-raising.

It turns out that Yankees—or foreign academics exposed to American ways— have a virtual lock on that skill set. Hamilton may be English by birth, but he's worked in the United States for almost three decades. Richardson, who's Irish, has spent almost 10 years at Harvard. When the University of Pennsylvania needed a new dean for its prestigious Wharton business school, it invited Korn/Ferry to include candidates from outside the United States, especially from Europe and East Asia. But "there were fewer [global options] than we would have liked," says Kring. The school ended up picking an American. "Fund-raising is a distinctively American thing," says John Isaacson of Isaacson, Miller, an executive-search firm that works mostly with universities and nonprofits. This strength is largely a product of experience and necessity, since U.S. schools rely heavily on philanthropy. At Harvard last year, philanthropy made up 40 percent of the total budget. (About 33 percent of that came from endowment payouts.)

At Cambridge the comparable figure was 10 percent, and at the University of Melbourne, 6 percent. Many European universities, meanwhile, are still mostly dependent on government funding. But state support has failed to keep pace with rising student numbers. In Britain, for example, government contributions dropped from $14,000 per student in 1990 to $9,000 in 2006. This decline has made fund-raising an increasingly necessary ability among administrators, and has hiring committees clamoring for Americans.

In the past few years, prominent schools around the world have joined the trend. In 2003, when Cambridge University appointed Alison Richard, another former Yale provost, as its vice chancellor, the university publicly stressed that in her previous job she had overseen "a major strengthening of Yale's financial position." Her hiring was part of a larger initiative—in 2005 Cambridge launched a 10-year, $2 billion development plan, and this year Oxford followed suit with its own $2.5 billion campaign. Both schools have opened development offices in the United States in order to tap wealthy alumni in a country already accustomed to giving.

Of course, fund-raising isn't the only skill outsiders offer. The globalization of education means more universities "will be seeking heads with international experience of some kind" to bolster international programs and attract a global student body, says Prof. Rick Trainor, principal of King's College London and president of Universities UK. Foreigners can offer a fresh perspective on established practices. "It can be issues like why are all these people doing three-year degrees or why are the overseas fees all denominated in particular currencies," says Malcolm Gillies, the Australian vice chancellor of City University London. "You have to ask a lot of naive questions—just not too loudly." Such questions are more and more likely to come from Americans these days. In this area of the global economy, at least, U.S. exports still rule.