Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Educational Leadership, Research and Technology

First Advisor

Dr. Louann Bierlein Palmer

Second Advisor

Dr. Donna Talbot

Third Advisor

Dr. Jeffrey Huberman


leadership, higher education, presidency, artist practitioner, creativity, career path


The American College President Study (ACE, 2017) revealed that 78% of university presidents are planning to retire within the next nine years. With the increasing complexity of higher education, the demand for innovative leadership will grow as a result of the departure of these leaders. This demand will create opportunities for artist practitioners interested in higher education leadership. However, if artist practitioners doubt an administrative role will give voice to their imagination, will they accept the challenge and opportunity of leadership?

Currently, only 0.33% of university presidents serving four-year degree-granting institutions of higher education in the U.S. come from the fine and performing arts; making these creative disciplines an underrepresented demographic among university presidents. With few role models and no extant studies on the subject, little is known about how artists progress into academic leadership or how their background as an artist practitioner informs their leadership. Are there lessons to be learned from exploring the experiences of artists who have pursued university presidencies?

Using a series of individual semi-structured, open-ended interviews, this basic qualitative study explored the experiences of eight university presidents who began their academic career as an artist practitioner to understand how the arts shaped and supported their leadership efforts.

Analysis of the data identified 15 themes along with 23 sub-themes related to the participants’ experiences as they assumed greater leadership responsibilities as a university president, as well as the impact the arts had on their leadership style, practices, and effectiveness.

Specifically, the data supports that creativity, as a core competency of an artist, was used in the participants’ leadership practices and contributed to their effectiveness in advancing their institutions. Throughout their narratives, the participants made connections that linked their work as an artist to their practices as an academic leader. All eight participants referenced how they leveraged their creativity and imagination, as well as creative problem-solving, in their work as a college or university president/ They also integrated familiar artistic processes into their leadership practices through collaboration and team-building, sought divergent feedback in decision-making, leveraged performance skills in communication practices, and were comfortable with risk-taking and ambiguity in facilitating change. These are key practices of artist practitioners. The data also highlighted the importance of empathy in the participants’ artistic and leadership practices, as well as their desire to enculturate it into the institutions they serve. The study identifies these three findings— leveraging creativity, imagination, and creative problem-solving; integrating artistic processes into leadership practices; and infusing empathy— as the most significant emergent themes of the study as they directly address the primary research question focused on the experiences of artists serving as college and university presidents, as well as confirm the theoretical framework based on the theory of Creative Leadership as presented by Puccio, Mance, and Murdock (2011). Recommendations for artist practitioners and others considering academic leadership are offered based on these findings.

Access Setting

Dissertation-Open Access