The Chief Executive Leadership Institute, a nonprofit run out of SOM by management professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, brought together university administrators and business leaders in a virtual leadership summit on Wednesday.

The summit’s main themes included innovation, investment and the post-pandemic economy. The real draw, however, was the sheer quantity of leaders from various universities and companies in attendance. Ro Khanna, representative of California’s 17th congressional district, tuned in and spoke, as did Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt and Harvard University President Lawrence Bacow. According to Sonnenfeld, his summits are amongst the most star-studded gatherings in the country’s academic settings.

“In modesty, there’s nothing like it in the world,” Sonnenfeld said in an interview. “You don’t have that many top leaders at any university in the world in the course of the year that we have in one day. They’re lively discussions, and it was remarkable the amount that they were curious about what others were doing and attacking common challenges.”

Attendees spoke about university acquisitions, an airstrip in Lubbock and a new microchip plant in Ohio bringing jobs for recent college graduates. Sonnenfeld personally introduced each speaker, often cold-calling them and interspersing light banter throughout the discussion. He led the summit for four hours with little break, all from a command room in Evans Hall. A small army of assistants kept the over-100-person Zoom room running smoothly. 

Sonnenfeld generally hosts eight summits a year — some for CEOs and business leaders, one for representatives of higher education and one that brings together mayors of mid- to large-sized cities. Sonnenfeld also frequently convenes or re-structures summits, he said, at quick notice in response to events like the Jan. 6 Capitol riots and the murder of George Floyd by police. 

Wednesday’s event, however, was unique in that it brought together academics and CEOs in a mingling of economics and education. Intel’s CEO Patrick Gelsinger and Zoom’s CEO Eric Yuan dropped in, as did presidents calling in from the offices of the nation’s academic institutions: schools like Georgetown University and Harvard University as well as a variety of public state schools, community colleges and historically black colleges and universities.

“The huge benefit of the forums is that they bring together a range of different sectors that don’t speak with and to one another often enough — higher education, business and industry, government and policy, etc,” New York University Provost Katherine Fleming wrote in an email.

Conversation rarely followed the summit’s stated agenda, instead spontaneously veering off into niche conversations on topics such as antitrust law for universities and speaking out against China’s human rights policies. 

Sonnenfeld also polled attendees within the Zoom call throughout the morning to further steer discussion—for example, around 83 percent responded that their universities had established vaccine mandates.

“Jeff Sonnenfeld is a masterful moderator, like none other, to draw in so many participants and move seamlessly and make connections between topics,” Quinnipiac University President Judy Olian wrote in an email. 

Olian, who has attended Sonnenfeld’s summits for the past four years, said that the varied topics of each summit has kept her returning year after year. She pointed specifically to Sonnenfeld’s ability to steer discussion towards current issues and not shy away from sensitive topics. 

At the end of the summit, the Legend in Leadership Award was presented by University President Peter Salovey, New York University President Andrew Hamilton and former president of Spelman College Johnetta Cole. The award went to Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, or UMBC.   

Hrabowski has served as president of UMBC for 30 years and will retire on June 30 at the end of the academic year. 

Isaac Yu was the News' managing editor. He covered transportation and faculty as a reporter and laid out the front page of the weekly print edition. He co-founded the News' Audience desk, which oversees social media and the newsletter. He was a leader of the News' Asian American and low-income affinity groups. Hailing from Garland, Texas, Isaac is a Berkeley College junior majoring in American Studies.