Should a small-college president be a PhD? ''Politically, yes,'' says Dr. Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. ''It's probably rare to be considered without it.
''But,'' he continues, ''for the carrying on of day-to-day activities, maybe no. As a college president you need a wise person who knows education and is a good administrator. The PhD is not the only way one can become a thoughtful leader.''
''While the selection process is going on, faculty members usually want a scholar,'' he explains, ''but the day after the position is filled, they want an administrator who can get funds and approval for their programs. They usually come to understand that this is not always the scholar's role; being president has somewhat different requirements.''
Earned doctoral degrees - most often the PhD, but alternatively degrees in law, medicine, divinity, science, or education - are today almost mandatory for would-be college or university presidents. But they are not the exclusive route to that position, and their appearance in the long history of American college and university administration is relatively recent.
Some colleges choose a president with recognized distinction in public service, conspicuous success in the business community, or, particularly for church-related colleges, prominence in the church of that denomination, rather than one who has distinguished himself academically. A few colleges select an ''entrepreneurial president - one with business and organizational skills.''
''The successful leader of a small college is, in many ways, like an entrepreneur,'' says Robert D. Peck, vice-president of the Council of Independent Colleges in Washington, D.C.
Mr. Peck, who surveyed small-college presidents to find out how they organize their resources to manage their institutions during difficult economic times, told the Monitor that the job of a small-college president is ''just all-consuming,'' and that the qualities that make for success are like those of a successful business person.
''What good small-college presidents have in common,'' he said, ''is a sense of mission and purpose. They are opportunity-conscious and innovative; they use an intuitive approach; and they rely on a people-centered administration.''
Mr. Peck, like Dr. Boyer, thinks the PhD degree is more useful in terms of credibility than in terms of administration. ''I would guess 90 percent have it. But it doesn't have much to do with the caliber of education offered. A president who doesn't have it may be very insistent upon high academic standards.''
President Reagan's alma mater, Eureka College in Eureka, Ill., is an example of a small college without a PhD at the helm. Eureka is presided over by the Rev. Daniel D. Gilbert, an ordained minister with a background in college development. At Eureka, student enrollment has increased in each of the past four years an average of 6 percent a year. Private gift income has increased more than 80 percent. And 1980-81 produced the first $1 million gift year in Eureka's history.
Gael D. Swing, president of North Central College in Naperville, Ill., faced controversey in 1975 when he was appointed without a PhD. He held an AB degree from Franklin College and an MS from Indiana University. His working career had been in higher education.
''President Swing is primarily a business person and has done a lot in financial and program development,'' says Jim Doody, director of public relations at North Central.
''He's not afraid to innovate - he uses academically taboo words like 'marketing' and 'packaging' to describe college plans. But he's turned this school around. We went from a college on the financial skids to one which is very healthy. From a very unstable enrollment, we have experienced a 64 percent increase.''
When a college or university seeks a new president, the trustees usually organize a search committee consisting of some combination of faculty, alumni, and emeriti, with the trustees having the final decision.
While many institutions today view an earned PhD as a basic credential, even prestigious universities on occasion find another doctorate equally acceptable; some have waived the requirement in quite recent times; and for the first 21/2 centuries of American higher education it was nonexistent.
Exceptions to the PhD custom include:
* Harvard: President Derek Bok holds the JD (doctor of jurisprudence) degree (from Harvard). Abbott Lowell, who presided over Harvard from 1909 to 1939, also had the JD rather than the PhD. The famous and influential Charles W. Eliot, president from 1869 to 1909, like all of his predecessors, did not have a PhD.
* Johns Hopkins: Milton S. Eisenhower, president of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore from 1956 to 1967, did not hold an earned doctorate.
* MIT: Paul Edward Gray of Massachusetts Institute of Technology has the ScD (doctor of science). Howard W. Johnson, who presided over MIT from 1966 to 1971, also held the ScD.
* Stanford: Ray Wilbur, president from 1916 to 1943, had the MD.
* Washington University, St. Louis: William C. Danforth, current chancellor, holds the MD.
When Mr. Eliot began his long tenure in the Harvard presidency, Harvard itself had not yet begun to award the PhD (Harvard was founded as a college in 1636; it was recognized by Massachusetts as a university in 1780, and presented its first PhD in the year 1872).
The PhD degree was an importation to the United States from Europe. It was first awarded here by Yale University in the year 1861.
None of Yale's three recipients of the degree that year became a college president: Eugene Schuyler was a diplomat; James Whiton, a professor of ethics; and Arthur W. Right, a professor of physics.
Today if a college president without an earned doctorate is appointed, it is probably unreasonable to expect that he can concurrently meet the rigorous demands of a degree program. But sooner or later he may receive the approbation of his peers in the form of an honorary degree.