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The Joys of the College Presidency

A challenging, yet satisfying, job
University Business, Sep 2010

Renewed efforts will be needed in the days ahead to prepare the next generation of campus leaders. The average age of college and university presidents is about 60; a wave of retirements over the next five to 10 years is inevitable. The ranks of chief academic officers -- the traditional proving ground of candidates for presidencies -- appear to be less promising as a source for the next cohort of presidents because the average age of CAOs is 57.

Despite a recent report from the Council of Independent Colleges that found very high levels of job satisfaction among CAOs, they have, paradoxically, served on average only 4.7 years in their current positions (and just 4.3 years for CAOs within CIC). Moreover, CAOs are not much interested in assuming the top campus spot --with only 27 percent of all CAOs saying they aspire to become a college president (within CIC colleges, even fewer, 24 percent express this view). Search consultants add that, except for highly prestigious institutions, the number of candidates for most presidencies is smaller today than it once was.

The declining appeal of the college presidency is an urgent issue. Public opinion these days debunks long-established institutions and questions the legitimacy of almost all authority, including college presidents. When criticized for poor performance or overly generous compensation, the responses by presidents have often been to emphasize the difficulties of the job - long hours; evening events with alumni, parents, and donors; too much travel; life in a fishbowl for the family; and little authority to act unilaterally.

Presidents have the opportunity to weave personal values into one's work to an unusual degree.

What doesn't get emphasized often enough is how satisfying the president's job can be - at best, how the joys of the presidency more than compensate for its frustrations. Consider, first, that the cause of higher education is itself a lofty mission. To devote oneself professionally to an enterprise that helps other people equip themselves for future lives of success, satisfaction, and civic responsibility inspires idealism and is of clear societal value. Second, presidents do have the opportunity to craft, then to act on the basis of an idealized vision for the institution - to weave personal values into one's work to an unusual degree. Third, leading is usually more satisfying than following -- presidents may lie awake at night because every detail of campus life is ultimately their responsibility, but that is generally preferable to midnight anxiety over one's boss' fitful indecision.

Faculty members' disdain for much of what crowds a president's daily schedule is often based on stereotypes that are not valid. These misconceptions are understandable because faculty members rarely have a chance to observe the president close at hand, engaged in the details of his or her work.

It's much more worrisome that many chief academic officers also subscribe to some of these stereotypes. Seven of 10 CAOs are not interested in the presidency, mainly because they find the nature of the work unappealing. They believe, for example, that raising money for the college is inherently unpleasant work. In fact - most presidents will say - having the chance to engage influential outsiders in the college and to persuade those outsiders to become equally committed to the cause is usually a rewarding experience. Another stereotype is that most donors do not understand the sophisticated world of academe, so college presidents must spend a lot of time talking with skeptics and dullards. In fact, many presidents will tell you that most successful people made their fortunes as a result of an uncommon degree of intelligence, creativity, and focus, and that it is intellectually stimulating to talk with these prospective donors, whether or not they are schooled in the subtleties of academe.

At the personal level, the stereotype that life in a glass house is hard on family life has validity, but - as one president recently quipped - being a president is easy because you never have to cut the grass and rarely have to prepare a meal. And presidents' compensation is justified not only by the nature of the responsibilities and the precariousness of tenure as president, but also because the compensation is a fraction of what CEOs of for-profit businesses are paid for running organizations of comparable complexity. Most presidents have little reason to be defensive about their salaries.

More open conversation is needed about the satisfactions of the presidency, not only its annoyances, if the people with the greatest talent and commitment are going to be drawn to campus leadership positions. The demography of the current generation of senior campus leaders suggests that we need to address this issue without delay.

In recent years, important gains have been made in diversifying the ranks of the presidency. Yet, overall, just 14 percent of college presidents are members of racial or ethnic minorities and only 23 percent are women (28 percent among CIC member colleges). Clearly, more needs to be done to encourage women and minority-group members to aspire to the presidency. The annual Millennium Leadership Initiative offered by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and cosponsored by CIC and the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities is one important initiative in support of this objective.

It also needs to be recognized that the pool of talent is larger than is often assumed. Effective campus leadership can be demonstrated by people who have many kinds of backgrounds. Progressive responsibility through the academic ranks of a college or university is still the main route to college presidencies, but in recent years somewhat larger numbers of talented individuals whose prior experience has been on campus in the areas of finance, student affairs, development, or admissions have become presidents. And a small but discernible number of people whose achievements as leaders have been in business, NGOs, government service, or the military have also been named to these positions. Although some of these individuals have not been able to transfer their talents to the top job in a campus setting, the counterintuitive truth is that many have been surprisingly successful. Clearly, multiple professional routes to campus leadership are possible.

The pool of campus leadership talent is larger than is often assumed.

Nevertheless, higher education should continue to draw most of its leaders from the ranks of those who are the most deeply experienced in the heart of the enterprise - as faculty members, deans, and provosts. CIC's report revealed that CAOs currently receive too little formal professional development for possible future presidential roles, as well as for their current CAO roles. This is particularly true for CAOs of smaller colleges and universities, with fewer than 30 percent indicating that they participated in formal preparation programs prior to assuming their current CAO role.

It is necessary to begin earlier to prepare faculty members and lower-level administrators for significant institution-wide responsibilities and also - to intensify the preparation of the most talented provosts and other vice presidents to assume presidencies. Professional development programs that prepare CAOs for the presidency should focus especially on fundraising, governing board relations, budget and financial management, -risk management, and legal issues - aspects of presidential responsibility that CAOs are less likely to have already encountered.

In addition, programs to replenish the pipeline of promising candidates - would do well to include strong mentoring components. The CIC study found that three of five CIC CAOs who do plan to seek a presidency have worked with mentors. More should be encouraged to do so.

Several higher education associations and universities already offer leadership development programs. The Council of Independent Colleges, which has operated many popular and effective programs for years, has recently added even more to this array.

Ensuring a broad and high-quality pool of future leaders of colleges and universities remains an urgent responsibility for all of us. Existing and newly developing leadership programs can replenish the pool of future leaders of the nation's campuses. But we also need to counter the popular cynicism by noting the tremendous amount of personal and professional fulfillment that can come from serving as a college president.

Richard Ekman is president of the Council of Independent Colleges,