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Analysis: The College President – Higher Education’s Toughest Job

The rapidly changing fiscal and technological landscape of higher education is likely to undermine the hopes of some academics who aspire to be college presidents, despite today’s abundance of opportunities and the prospects of more to come.

The traditional academic achievements yardstick for measuring a candidate’s potential as a president are being redefined by changing fiscal realities, increasingly activist trustees and other stakeholders, and the loss of privacy, say veteran educators, current presidents, mentors and recruiters.

“In all my years in higher education, the pressure and demands of presidents are greater than I’ve ever seen,” said Gladys Styles Johnston, veteran educator and director of the Millennium Leadership Initiative (MLI), a presidential grooming program that is part of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU).

“There is a great demand for change, not business as usual,” said Johnston, echoing the sentiments of others as they painted the current landscape for aspiring presidents.

Hampton University President Dr. William Harvey, who runs “On the Road to the Presidency,” a program for aspiring presidents, said the traditional “ideal” candidate is less likely to be at the top of many lists today.

“I’m not recasting what we’ve done,” said Harvey, whose last program drew some 85 leadership aspirants for three days of frank discussions about budgets, fundraising, legal issues and community engagement. “I think it is being recast,” he added.

“No longer are you seeing people who’ve written 10 books,” said Harvey, referring to an era when academic achievement highlighted by a portfolio of published works boosted a candidate’s prospects. “That’s all well and good. But, you’ve got to have managers, leaders. The old notion of a stodgy, pipe-smoking professor is over. It’s unlikely an outstanding professor who has written 10 books has the wherewithal to be a president.”

The candid assessments come as nearly 15 percent of the nation’s institutions of higher education are on the hunt for new presidents, including more than a dozen Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

The prospects for even more turnover in the next few years are strong, if trends documented in a recent report by the American Council on Education hold.

The “American College President 2012” report found that the average age of a U.S. college president in 2011 was 61 years old. The council’s Center for Policy Analysis also found that the average length of service in 2011 for a president was seven years compared to 8.5 years in 2006.

The challenges for current and aspiring presidents are real, say those interviewed.

At public and private institutions, with some exceptions, budgets are being slashed and educational offerings reduced, as institutional income continues to shrink or remain stagnant in the face of the nation’s fragile economy and as results-focused budgeting steadily replaces the traditional head count approach. The pressure is on to be a chief fundraiser as much as a president, if all but the wealthiest of institutions is to persevere and grow.

University stakeholders—from trustee boards to faculty senates to alumni groups—are becoming more vocal, independent and unpredictable, as evidenced by the recent firing and then rehiring of the president of the University of Virginia (a disruptive replay of a scenario that occurred not long ago at South Carolina State University) and the very public reprimand and then vote of no confidence by trustees at Florida A & M University aimed at that institution’s president.

The emergence of the 24-hour news cycle is also a challenge for presidents and aspiring leaders, the mentors noted, as traditional strategies for communicating with the news media, focused on morning and evening news cycles, are being increasingly challenged by round-the-clock reporting, online news, blogging, tweeting and other social media.

Collectively, they make it hard for presidents to maintain any sense of privacy and to stay on top of their own news developments.

The magnitude of these challenges has not fallen on deaf ears, as the handful of organizations that help groom academic leaders and agencies that do head hunting for higher education executives are finding. By the end of this year’s MLI conference, a program limited to academics with the rank of dean or higher, several participants left having decided a presidency is not for them.

“They don’t want their lives to be open books,” said one MLI participant, saying the boot camp session on the media stressed the changing public profile of college presidents and the increasing scrutiny to which they and their families are often subjected. 

For sure, there is a shortage of solid traditional route candidates to fill all the jobs open today, said recruiter Lucy Leske, vice president of Witt-Kieffer, the academic leadership search firm.

“I don’t think there are enough people in the positions we would predictably go to who are prepared to take on these jobs,” said Leske. She said a growing number of provosts, the likely talent pool for presidential candidates, are passing on presidency opportunities, prompting search committees and recruiters to cast a wider net for prospects.

“We’re looking anywhere and everywhere we can find true leaders,” said Leske. “There isn’t ‘one size fits all,’” she said.

Leske said institutions are being “creative” in their ideas about the kind of person they would like, indicating an openness to looking outside academia and considering current board or trustee members to fill the top job.

“You probably will see some poor choices and people from other fields (outside academia),” Leske said. “If there’s a demand, the market will eventually supply it.”

Johnston, a founder of the 10-year-old MLI program, voiced concern that some universities may be putting their hopes too high, if they are banking on hiring a person as president with a mandate to hasten change at their institution and quickly raise money.

“Some want change too fast,” said Johnston. “An organization can only take so much change at one time. It can cause chaos.”

One MLI mentor also stressed that not all change is for the better when it’s one-sided: “When you are constantly planning for reductions, you can’t plan for development. In the present economy, we have to end this view of higher education as an asset to budget cuts.”

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