Do Deans Make Better Presidents Than Provosts?

Why might the dean-to-president route become more common, asks Carl J. Strikwerda, and what might it reveal about the evolving paths to the presidency?

February 2, 2017
 
 
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So-called nontraditional leaders -- business executives, lawyers and consultants -- have captured public attention in recent years when they’ve been appointed presidents of colleges and universities. According to a 2012 American Council on Education study, the most recent data available, the percentage of presidents whose prior position was outside higher education increased from 13 percent to 20 percent over the previous five years. Controversies surrounding nontraditional presidents at the University of Iowa and Mount St. Mary’s of Maryland show that this trend continues.

But less noticed and equally revealing is the trend for deans to skip being a provost or vice president and go straight to the presidency. That is especially true at smaller private colleges and universities, as seen at Butler University, Goucher College, Hendrix College, Trinity University in Texas and Willamette University over the last five years. Almost 10 percent of public institutions’ new presidents last year had been deans in their last position. The number at private colleges and universities is probably higher.

Why might the dean-to-president route become more common and what might it reveal about the evolving paths to the presidency?

Who becomes a college president is a vital question. In our diverse society, presidents are increasingly older and still overwhelmingly male and white. While the percentage of women among presidents grew from 23 percent to 26 percent between 2006 and 2011, according to ACE, the proportion of ethnic or racial minorities actually declined from 14 to 13 percent.

Meanwhile, the traditional route of provost or academic vice president to president appears threatened. In a recent survey, only 19 percent of provosts said they were interested in pursuing presidencies. Further, I have found it challenging lately to convince search firms and committees that provosts make strong candidates for presidencies.

If we are to increase the pool of potential presidents, we should understand why provosts have difficulty competing for presidencies and why deans may increasingly become successful candidates.

Trends within higher education have made the provost position less fitting as a springboard for the presidency, just as they have made deanships more so. Working or consulting with provosts at more than a dozen institutions, I have been struck by how unlike the presidency the position is. Provosts handle internal matters. They traditionally have few dealings with external constituencies, such as the news media, trustees, alumni and businesspeople. Indeed, with the increasing complexity of accreditation, compliance, risk management and retention, provosts and academic vice presidents have moved away from their traditional role of representing the academic core of the institution. They have become managers of processes. Search committees see them as chief operating officers, not leaders.

Deans, by contrast, especially at larger institutions with multiple schools within universities, have become more like presidents of small colleges. As responsibility-centered management spread through academe over the last generation, it made colleges and schools within universities “tubs on their own bottom.” No longer treated as members of the institutional team in the ways we had been, we deans became fierce advocates for our schools within our universities, as well as ambassadors to constituencies outside of them. As dean of arts and sciences at the College of William and Mary, I doubled the size of the fund-raising office, created a communications team and spent more time on the road (or in the airport) than I had ever planned.

My experience paralleled that of many deans whom I met as a board member of the Council of Colleges of Arts and Sciences, the nation’s largest association of deans. Forced to cut budgets while educating greater numbers of students, we became more like CEOs, moving money among salaries, equipment and facilities while making the case for increased support from outside. The deanship proved excellent training for being president of a small college who “lives in a big house, begs for money.”

The lack of interest of search committees in provosts as candidates and their emerging interest in deans may thus go together. The one trend is concerning, the other a small sign of hope. And the fact is that we should help expand opportunities for leadership for both provosts and deans.

We should try to counteract the trend to see provosts as unattractive candidates and instead make their position more of a pipeline. Search firms and committees should not assume that a provost or academic vice president lacks the skills for the presidency. Making the case to external constituencies is a much easier transition for a provost skilled in communication than it is feared. He or she knows the message and has delivered it internally numerous times -- and often externally, as well. Presidents can help cultivate the next generation by giving provosts more opportunity to deal with trustees, donors and the news media.

At the same time, we should foster more deans as candidates. A broadly experienced dean who has led a major unit within a university is well qualified to take on presidential leadership, especially at smaller institutions.

In short, it is crucial for all of us in higher education to have as strong a pool of academically trained presidents as possible. Both provosts and deans have great strengths, and we should help more of them build on those strengths and progress to top leadership.

Bio

Carl J. Strikwerda is president of Elizabethtown College and previously served as dean of the faculty of arts and sciences at the College of William and Mary.

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