Books bookstore generic stock photo

Pictured here is the typical number of books read by an English major during four years of college.

(I've updated this post twice below.)

When I saw the news last month that my alma mater (aka the Alma Mater of the Nation, aka William & Mary) had hired a new president, I was struck by something:

Katherine Rowe was an English major in college. That makes one thing (and probably the only thing) we have in common, because, I, too, majored in English.

Rowe went on to be an English scholar (she specializes in Shakespeare, Milton and others medieval and Renaissance writers) and, eventually, the provost of Smith College in Massachusetts. But as an undergraduate or maybe sometime before, Rowe decided she preferred to read books and write papers instead of peering into a microscope, preparing case studies or student-teaching.

Come to think of it, there are quite a few other English majors kicking around the presidential offices in higher education. Vincent Price, the new Duke University president, was an English major. His predecessor, Richard Brodhead was not just an English major; he's also an English professor

Outgoing Elon University president Leo Lambert was an English major who later got advanced degrees in education. His successor, Connie Book, is English-adjacent; she majored in journalism, the more practical cousin of the English major. Over at Guilford College**, President Jane Fernandes has three degrees in comparative literature and also holds the position of English professor.

Also: Meredith College President Jo Allen was an English major at Meredith and, later, a tenured English professor at a couple of North Carolina universities. The new Warren Wilson College president, Lynn Morton, was an English (and history) major at UNCG. Appalachian State* Chancellor Sheri Everts got her bachelor’s degree in English instruction (close enough!) and taught middle and high school English before getting into the higher ed business. There are probably a few more English-majors-turned-college-presidents out there, but I can blow only so much of my day Googling this stuff, you know? 

So how do English majors end up as college presidents? That’s a good question.

It’s very possible that the critical thinking, creativity, and communication skills that someone develops through a study of English literature and related topics are the perfect preparation to run an enterprise as complex as the modern American university.

Or it’s possible that these folks went from majoring in English to working in higher ed because barista jobs didn’t exist back in the day. Who's to say? 

I kid because I love. You’re probably better off these days to major in English than history (my other college infatuation) because the current job market for people with history doctorates is downright pitiful. This hurts my heart. Barista jokes aside, English majors and other bachelor's degree-holders in the humanities are in fact employed and doing pretty well on the whole

If you're an English major, thinking about becoming one or know one, you might find some reassurance and inspiration over at www.DearEnglishMajor.com. It's a website for English majors started by — who else? — "an English major ... (who) had no idea what kind of career I wanted to pursue."

Might I suggest college president?

* Update, 5 p.m. Thursday: I managed to confuse UNC schools that start with "A," so it's the App State chancellor, not the UNC-Asheville chancellor, who was the English major in college. And speaking of UNC-Asheville, the interim chancellor, Joseph Urgo, was a political science major, but he started out his higher ed career as an English professor. Go figure.

** Update, 9:45 a.m. Friday: I added Jane Fernandes to the list above. For some reason my brain didn't translate comp lit to English.

Don't miss a post from The Syllabus. Like me on Facebook, and follow me on Twitter.

Have something to say about something you just read? Email me at john.newsom@greensboro.com.

Get today’s top stories right in your inbox. Sign up for our daily morning newsletter.

Load comments