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The Changing Face of the Top Job: New Report Traces Pathways to the Presidency

Leadership and Management

The Changing Face of the Top Job: New Report Traces Pathways to the Presidency

One of the most beloved presidents of my alma mater, Miami University, was fortunate enough to live during a period of great cultural and technological change and spent much of his career at the same institution. A historian of the university wrote of this president, Alfred Upham, “He first came to the college in a horse and buggy; he lived to dedicate the Miami airport.” Upham served as Miami’s president for 17 years.

Few, if any, modern presidents can ever aspire to a similar career path. According to Pathways to the University Presidency, a new report by Deloitte’s Center for Higher Education Excellence and Georgia Tech’s Center for 21th Century Universities, modern presidents are older and yet more mobile than the presidents of decades past. The report cites data from the American Council on Education, finding that “nearly six in ten presidents are in their sixties, and their average tenure in the job is seven years, down from eight and a half years a decade ago.”

Not only are college presidents staying in a single office for a shorter amount of time, it is clear that the demands placed on the president are, if not necessarily more stressful than in the past, certainly more varied. The Pathways report explains that the president

is accountable to a dizzying array of stakeholders and constituents, on campus (students, faculty, and administrative staff) and off; parents who are hyperinvolved in every aspect of their child’s experience; community leaders seeking to influence the university’s role in town; alumni who want to maintain the experience they had as students; and, in the case of public institutions, political leaders who demand greater accountability even in the face of dwindling state support.

It is no wonder that presidents are not universally successful in their endeavors. The report notes that, in several recent cases, “public flameouts are ending their tenures early.” All of this combines to create a new picture of the university presidency, both the path to attaining the top job and the responsibilities once there.

No traditional path

The university president was once seen as the “first among equals,” a leader who had risen up the ranks through the faculty, a deanship, the provost’s office, and finally to the presidency. Today, although this is still one path to the presidency, it is no longer the only one.

“The data indicate the traditional paths are breaking down a bit. A surprising number of deans are jumping into the presidency,” says Cole Clark, executive director of higher education for Deloitte. The change is easy to understand. The report points out that the transition might be particularly smooth for those moving to a small institution where the entire institution might function similarly to a single college at a large university.

However, there is an interesting gender differential in this new jump over the provost’s office. “It is much more common for women to stop at the provost’s office on their way to the presidency,” the authors report. This may translate into an extra step before the presidency for women and perhaps a longer path.

Clark also says there’s “a surprising number of people from another path” than the traditional academic ascent. This trend fits well, however, with the report’s findings on the skills that survey respondents felt were most important to possess when assuming the presidency. In order, these skills are that of a strategist, communicator and storyteller, fund-raiser, collaborator, someone with financial and operational acumen, and an academic and intellectual leader. It is significant that respondents placed the traditional academic skills last on this list.

Some of these priorities point to areas where future presidents can hone their skills. In fact, 20 percent of the respondents in the study said that fundraising and alumni/donor relations are the most important responsibilities of presidents; two-thirds said that they rank among the top three most important responsibilities they have. However, the respondents also indicated that the presidents were underprepared to provide “executive oversight” in this area, indicating that gaining some experience in the area will pay dividends to the future president.

 It is likely, however, that the prospective president will have to pursue his or her own learning opportunities. “There’s a lack of any pervasive leadership development strategy” at most institutions, Clark says. The Pathways study also said: “While nearly two-thirds of presidents in the survey said they had coaches or mentors to help them prepare for the role, only one-third indicated they still receive coaching to succeed in the job.”

“This is a gap that really needs attention,” Clark says. This is particularly true because leaders who seek progressively more challenging roles, including the presidency, are often seen by their peers as “taking a step back from the primary goal in academia: teaching and research.”. One president in the study commented, “Colleges are among the few places where taking a leadership position is tantamount to going over to the dark side.”

Future challenges

The Pathways report also identifies a number of issues that present challenges for campus leaders. Some samples include the following:

  • Short-term thinking: A college president from the turn of the 20th century, who intended to stay in his job for a decade or more, saw a much different horizon than a modern president who may stay for half that time. The study quotes one president of a private university who says, “Presidents approach their job with the expectation that they’ll be judged on what they can finish. They think, ‘I’ll only be here five years, so I should only focus on what I can do in that time before I move on.’” That sort of short-term thinking may be effective in addressing immediate issues and leaving a definable legacy, but over time, it will not allow the institution to pursue necessary long-term strategic priorities.
  • Bad fit: In prior years, presidents may have been more likely to have had experience at the institution they would eventually lead, or at least at a similar institution. Regardless, longer terms in office used to give presidents time to grow into the office and learn more about their institution.


“The revolving door among presidents means that colleges and universities are looking for presidents more often. In this war for talent, search committees often have outsized ambitions about what they want in their next president, and this lack of alignment tends to lead to bad fits with hires who last only a few years on the job,” the report states. It highlights the need for a successful president to be “in sync with the DNA of their institutions,” but notes that the potential to cause a bad fit is not only the fault of the search committees; often, potential presidents apply at a wide range of institutions in the hopes of landing the top job somewhere, regardless of fit. “That’s how you end up with bad fits—a private university provost becomes president at a public land-grant,” one president says.

  • Looking beyond the provosts: Clark notes that one interesting finding from the study was “an increase in the number of provosts that no longer have a desire to ascend to the presidency.” In fact, the report suggests a growing division in skill sets; provosts are no longer just “mini-presidents,” but they have a distinct role and specific competencies on the academic side of the institution that complements but doesn’t necessarily duplicate the duties of the president. Therefore, institutions hiring a president need to look closely at candidates to see if they have both the intellectual background and the range of skills needed to be credible representatives of the university both internally and externally.

In sum, the Pathways report presents a picture of a changing college presidency, opening opportunities for institutions to hire leaders of diverse experience and skill sets and for a wider range of academic leaders to develop the competencies needed to one day take the top job. The presidents of tomorrow might not spend significant portions of their careers at a single institution, but with the proper preparation, it is likely they can have an impact in the years they are there.


SIDEBAR:Best prep for the presidency? Take on a range of extra work


The Pathways study asked presidents about the advice they would give others seeking the office. One experienced president of a large urban public research university says the following:

  • Seek breadth and depth. Get the broad experiences to understand how universities work. “Amazing what you can learn doing things nobody else wants to do,” the president said.
  • Look outward. Gain experience working with external partners and relationship building. “As president, you’re the external person, not internal.”
  • Acquire budget experience. Money is the critical tool to realize any plan as president.

Here are three ways this campus chief told Pathways that great leaders differ from good ones:

  • Pay attention to the culture and process. “They matter a lot. If you get the process right, you can do anything.”
  • Be a planner. “Remember, you’re always playing chess. Must always be thinking three moves ahead.” Don’t move from one press release to another. “That means you are reactionary. Publicity will follow if you’re being strategic.”
  • Have a goal and a pathway to get there. “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up somewhere.”


Content adapted from Pathways to the University Presidency; reprinted with permission.


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