Dwight D. Eisenhower's presidency of Columbia University: A case study in nontraditional presidential leadership

Douglas E Clark, University of Pennsylvania


As a major world figure at the time of his selection as Columbia University's president in 1947, Dwight Eisenhower had already demonstrated his considerable capacity as a leader during World War II. Given he was not an academic and had no prior experience in college administration, his presidency of Columbia serves as a case study in nontraditional presidential leadership. Eisenhower's tenure at Columbia raises some interesting questions: What impact did Eisenhower's lack of experience in a college or university have on his ability to lead in an academic culture? What was Eisenhower's sense of Columbia's mission and was it consistent with the culture of the institution as a research university? What is the verdict of history on Eisenhower's presidency of Columbia University? What lessons from his Columbia presidency are applicable today? ^ The research methodology for this case study analysis was historical involving archival research at Columbia's Butler Library, the Eisenhower Presidential Library, and the Library of Congress. Published primary sources included The Eisenhower Papers and the Eisenhower memoirs Crusade in Europe and At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends. ^ The findings dispute the notion in some historical circles that Eisenhower's presidency of Columbia was a “disaster” for the institution. In fact, under his leadership, Columbia moved forward with an important administrative restructuring plan, improved its finances, and established a professional development operation. Furthermore, Eisenhower's status as a world figure raised Columbia's institutional profile. Despite those successes, Eisenhower had a difficult tenure at Columbia. Although he was acclaimed as a military leader, his lack of both prior academic experience and a full understanding of academic culture diminished his capacity to lead at Columbia and damaged his credibility with faculty. One source of tension was his concept of “democratic citizenship” as institutional mission, which conflicted with the research culture prevalent among faculty at Columbia. His experience at Columbia illustrates the importance of understanding institutional culture when assuming the presidency of a college or university. ^

Subject Area

Biography|Education, Higher Education Administration|Education, History of

Recommended Citation

Clark, Douglas E, "Dwight D. Eisenhower's presidency of Columbia University: A case study in nontraditional presidential leadership" (2011). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3455414.