Rick Trainor has been appointed principal of King's College London, making him the first head of a former polytechnic to take the helm of a Russell Group institution.
Professor Trainor, vice-chancellor of Greenwich University, will join King's next September.
An American who came to the UK as a Rhodes scholar in the 1970s, he fell in love with British history and has stayed ever since.
Professor Trainor, 54, has retained his academic interests, remaining active in research while scaling the administrative heights. He specialises in the social history of the 19th and 20th centuries and is particularly interested in the exercise of authority in industrialising Britain.
Educated at Brown, Princeton and Oxford universities, Professor Trainor joined the University of Glasgow in 1979 and went on to become senior vice-principal.
On his departure to head Greenwich in 2000, he was hailed as "an eminent academic, an experienced strategic planner and an excellent manager" as well as "very much a people person".
Professor Trainor is also interested in the use of computing in history teaching and research.
He is convener of the Learning and Teaching Support Network steering group and a member of the committee on academic quality for the eUniversity.
He sits on the board of Universities UK and the steering committee of the London Higher Education Consortium.
Professor Trainor said the next few years would "distinguish those universities that are excellent from those that are outstanding, so it's an important time for King's as well as universities generally".
He succeeds Arthur Lucas, who is retiring.
Mike Shattock, visiting professor at the Institute of Education, in London, who was on the committee that appointed Professor Trainor vice-chancellor of Greenwich, said the move was "a sad loss for Greenwich and very good news for King's".
He said: "He would have been an admirable candidate for a vice-chancellorship at any kind of institution in the sector."
Michael Sterling, vice-chancellor of Birmingham University and chairman of the Russell Group, said the appointment was "very healthy for the sector".
But he added: "I expect the appointing committee was more interested in the quality of the candidate, than in the type of institution he comes from."