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Long History of Politicians Becoming University Heads

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In a surprise move, Department of Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano is being named as the next president of the University of California university system.

The news was first delivered by the Los Angeles Times, with White House officials confirming her departure shortly after.

The new hire puts the former Arizona governor and U.S. Attorney at the helm of arguably the nation’s premier system of higher learning, tasked with leading its 10 institutions and affiliate research centers.

In citing some of the reasons for her selection, the Los Angeles Times story summarized UC officials who noted her background “will help UC administer its federal energy and nuclear weapons labs and aid its federally funded research in medicine and other areas.”

Napolitano continues a long line of public officials who have transitioned to leading posts in higher learning. A website, Political Graveyard, maintains a useful, though incomplete, list of former politicians and top public servants who’ve taken over the reins (or assumed a figurehead position) at postsecondary institutions over the years.

Big names include Robert Gates, who served as Secretary of Defense from 2006 to 2011 under two presidents after holding other top positions in previous administrations, including Director of Central Intelligence under President George Herbert Walker Bush. Gates was president of Texas A&M from 2002 to 2006, before being named Secretary of Defense. His tenure “earned high marks for his bold vision, sharp intellect and consistent, consensus-building leadership” according to the Houston Chronicle. Gates now holds the ceremonial post of Chancellor of the College of William and Mary.

Rebecca Blank, is the incoming chancellor of University of Wisconsin-Madison. She holds a doctorate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and served as acting Secretary of Commerce under president Obama.

David Boren served as governor and later senator for the state of Oklahoma from 1975 to 1994. He is currently president of the University of Oklahoma.

Erskine Bowles, former chief of staff for Bill Clinton, was president of the University of North Carolina system from 2005 to 2010. He has recently returned to the political arena, joining forces with a retired Republican senator to create a budget model to reduce the nation’s debt.

Current governor of Iowa Terry Branstad was president of Des Moines University from 2003 to 2009 after his first go as the Hawkeye state’s gubernatorial pick from 1983 to 1999.

Former Indiana governor and head of President George W. Bush’s Office of Management and Budget Mitch Daniels was named president of Purdue University in 2012.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower, before embarking on his successful presidential campaigns but after leading Allied troops in World War II, was president of Columbia University. His tenure as university president was interrupted by his appointment to the role of Supreme Commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Current president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges Mark Gearan is another Clinton alum, having served as a deputy chief of staff and director of the Peace Corps during the president from Arkansas’ administration.

M. Peter McPherson was president of Michigan State University until 2004. McPherson had served in President Gerald Ford’s White House.

Donna Edna Shalala, another Badger, was president Clinton’s Secretary of Health and Human Services for eight years after serving as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After her role at HHS, Shalala became president of University of Miami in Florida.

Larry Summers was president of Harvard University from 2001 to 2006. Previously, he served as Secretary of the Treasury for Bill Clinton and was the chief economist at the World Bank. After his stint at Harvard, which ended with a resignation following a string of controversies, Summers was director of the National Economic Council for President Obama.

A few politicians who came short have also served as university heads. Bruce Benson, who unsuccessfully ran for governor of Colorado in 1994, has served as president of the University of Colorado since 2008. Unrelated but still humorous and therefore worth noting: during his run for the governor’s seat he took a jab at his opponent for being born on a less patriotic day than he. The incumbent, Democrat Roy Romer, was born on Halloween. Benson was born on the Fourth of July. Voters picked the candy candidate.

Numerous university heads with political backgrounds have assumed positions in Texas, according to Kevin Kiley of Inside Higher Ed.

Some blasts from the past? The co-founder of first president of Cornell University, Andrew Dickson White, held several diplomatic posts, including Ambassador to Germany from 1897 to 1902.

Woodrow Wilson? Try Professor Wilson. Before running the state of New Jersey and steering the country through World War I as president of the U.S., the German-speaking professor of political science led Princeton University as the institution’s president from 1902 to 2010. He likely has a lock on the honor of being the only presidential candidate to face a real threat from the “Bull Moose” and Socialist parties.

And Abraham Baldwin, who fought in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, served as a senator from Georgia in the nation’s early years, and helped found and lead what later became the University of Georgia.

Special thanks to Kevin KileyRobert KelchenBen WildavskyKim Clark and Rachel Fishman for helping me compile this list.