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Higher Ed Leaders Debate Best Path to College Presidency

When Dr. Ana Guzmán decided to leave her post as vice chancellor of the Texas A&M University System and become the first woman president of Palo Alto College in Texas, people thought she was nuts, Guzmán admits. But Guzmán, eager to serve the San Antonio community, took the job anyway.

Under her leadership, enrollment has increased and the college has become an economic engine for the south side of San Antonio. She has also added 12 new occupational technical programs that have enabled the college to become a critical work force trainer for Toyota and its suppliers.

In fact, Guzmán has garnered so much success at the community college level that four-year universities looking for college presidents are knocking on her door. To other minorities seeking a nontraditional pathway to the college presidency, Guzmán, who spoke at the American Council on Education’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, suggested that they consider community colleges.

“Success attracts success,” says Guzmán. “Minorities cannot follow the traditional path to the presidency. We need to create our own path. In following the traditional path, you have to depend on other people giving you opportunities. But, oftentimes, people do not give you opportunities.”

Data collected by ACE show that there is a shortage of junior faculty in line to take the place of the academy’s aging leadership. According to ACE researchers, only 3 percent of faculty at four-year institutions are 34 years old or younger and working in tenure-line positions. Those between the ages of 35 and 44 represent 15 percent working in tenure-track positions. The percentage is significantly lower for minority faculty members.

While people of color under age 45 typically compose a larger proportion of young tenure-line faculty than those who are older, they represent only 4 percent of faculty at four-year institutions and 6 percent of faculty at community colleges.

Young and minority faculty often do not have the time and opportunity to advance up the traditional academic career ladder — going from department chair to dean to chief academic officer — into senior administrative leadership positions or the office of the presidency. It increasingly takes them longer to complete doctoral programs and delay career opportunities for family which lengthens the time it takes for them to advance through the academy, according to a report released by ACE in 2008.

“Is the current path necessary?” asked Dr. Ellen Chaffee, visiting scholar and President-in-Residence at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. “It will not necessarily do our country well to have a lot of traditional presidents.” The future might embrace active agents of change over traditional presidents, added Chafee, who has never held a faculty appointment but has served in several leadership positions at the executive level as well as in academic, student affairs, research and equal opportunity areas. She has also served as president of Valley City State University and Mayville State University.

In 2006, the average age of a college president was 60, while the average age of chief academic officers and deans hovered around the mid-50s. These numbers are significantly different from those recorded 20 years ago when more than 40 percent of college presidents were age 50 or younger, according to a recent ACE report entitled, “Too Many Rungs on the Ladder.” Today, only 8 percent are in this age bracket, the report states.

Often, the finalist pools for the president and senior administrative positions consist of people in their 50s or 60s, says Theodore Marchese, senior consultant for Academic Search Inc., an executive search firm for colleges and universities.

One reason why job candidates are now older says Marchese is because “there are a lot of older people on search committees: older trustees and older faculty members,” he said. “These people relate to those who are closer in age with similar life and [professional] experiences.”

Because hiring pools — that consist of faculty, staff, and trustees — expect candidates to have a wealth of teaching, administrative, fundraising and leadership experience, said Marchese, taking a nontraditional path to the presidency could prove problematic.

“There is a lot anecdotal evidence that suggests nontraditional presidents do not work. There are exceptions, but by-in-large these people do not succeed,” Marchese said.

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