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Is the Future Female? Study Indicates Likely Increase in Female Presidents of Research Institutions

Leadership and Management

Is the Future Female? Study Indicates Likely Increase in Female Presidents of Research Institutions

Study Indicates Likely Increase in Female Presidents of Research Institutions

Comments about the university president’s office occupied predominantly by white men may have had their basis in fact, but that is likely to change with the next generation of leaders. This is the conclusion of a new study in the Journal of Higher Education Management, which looks at demographic and academic characteristics of the current crop of presidents and provost of research-intensive universities.

The study, “A Profile of Generational Change in the Leadership of American Research-Intensive Universities,” was conducted by Richard A. Skinner, PhD, a senior consultant at Harris Search Associates and a former two-time university president. The study looked at characteristics of the presidents of American Association of Universities (AAU) institutions in both 1992 and 2017, allowing comparison of leadership a generation apart. Skinner also looked at similar characteristics of provosts in the more recent crop of leadership, as more than half of the presidents in the 2017 cohort served as provosts immediately prior to ascending to the presidency, a proportion up from 38 percent in the 1992 group. This indicates that looking at current provosts may be a good predictor of who will hold the presidencies of research institutions.

The study has obvious limitations. Skinner looked at the leadership of AAU member universities. This restricted the scope of the universities studied to a small group of research-intensive institutions. Generalizing the findings to other institutional types and missions may be inappropriate.

The findings are nonetheless intriguing. Some of these are:

  • In 2017, 20 percent of the survey population of institutions had a female president, up from five percent in 1992. Even more encouraging, 37 percent of the most recent cohort of presidents were female. With the provost’s office becoming an increasingly-important last stop before the presidency, it is likely this group of women will ascend to the highest office at a university in the next decade. The “pipeline problem,” in which the population of female leaders has been limited by the number of women prepared for these positions, appears to be on its last legs.
  • Unfortunately, the same progress is not seen among African Americans. Only five percent of presidents were African American in 2017, up from zero in 1992.
  • The path to the presidency, although still primarily coming through the provost position, is becoming more open to candidates from outside academe. In the 2017 cohort, four of the 60 presidents surveyed came from outside academe. However, the same cannot be said for the provosts in the study; none of these leaders came from outside academe, perhaps an indication that careers outside academe are not a good path to the provost position, which remains the most likely path to the presidency.
  • Finally, and not unexpectedly, these research-intensive universities have seen a dramatic increase in the number of engineers in the top job, with a corresponding drop in the number of historians. Perhaps, for these institutions, it is no longer a truism that presidents come from “the softest of the hard sciences and the hardest of the soft sciences.”

Skinner also predicts that tenure in office is likely to lengthen. “For the persons who become provosts and president in the near future, longer life expectancies for their generation as well as improvements in overall health may well raise the age at which they assume posts and the length of their tenure in those posts,” he writes. He cites several sitting presidents who are in the older half of the Baby Boom, allowing the conclusion that this generation will continue to impact higher education just as it has done since it first entered college in the mid-1960s.

Overall, the study gives an interesting demographic snapshot of a very select group of institutions. While it would be a mistake to contend that these institutions are representative of all of American higher education, understanding the leadership of this high-profile subset is an important step toward understanding the future tenants of president’s houses on campuses across the country.

Jennifer Patterson Lorenzetti is editor of Academic Leader and chair of the Leadership in Higher Education Conference. She is the owner of Hilltop Communications and an adjunct professor for both Wittenberg University and Miami University.


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