What Makes a Good Chief Academic Officer?

Michael T. Marsden offers lessons that he's learned serving at liberal arts colleges for close to two decades.

November 15, 2018

Many people have widely varying concepts of what makes a good chief academic officer, let alone an ideal one. Presidents themselves conceptualize the role of a chief academic officer in widely varying ways. But when pressed, most faculty members, administrators and others who work in higher education would agree that some models for the job are better than others and that a good chief academic officer operates in certain ways.

In my experience, having served as a chief academic officer for almost two decades, the best model is one in which the person holds a true second-in-command position, understood by everyone to serve on behalf of the president when they are unavailable. The effective chief academic officer also recognizes that the fundamental role of the position is to serve and support the president or chancellor. They must give honest and forthright advice based on their expertise, yet understand that the president ultimately makes the final decision.

In each position I’ve held, I have discovered more about the job of the chief academic officer. For those of you considering moving into such a position, here are some lessons that I’ve picked up along the way.

Follow the “no surprises” rule. Beginning with my tenure at St. Norbert College in 2003, I’ve always worked to keep the president fully informed of bad news as well as good news -- and all the news in between. To that end, I have provided weekly written reports to each of the presidents with whom I have served. That discipline has forced me to summarize the previous week and given me the opportunity to look forward to the week ahead.

Early in my career, when I served as a special assistant to the provost at Bowling Green State University, inaccurate enrollment management data were forwarded to the provost. I personally corrected the error immediately, even though the news was not good. That lesson served me well over the years. Bad news is never good news, but it can become dreadful news if it is withheld.

Welcome the input of critics. At least two or three times a year, I also provided regular, public updates to the broader campus community about my priorities, actions and the results of those actions. I often circulated drafts of presentations in advance to supporters and critics alike to gain valuable feedback. For example, at the beginning of my tenure at St. Norbert College, senior faculty members quietly let me know that the agenda I was outlining was far too ambitious and that it needed tempering, given the realities of the college.

I have also found that regular open office hours are a rich method for learning about many below-the-surface yet important issues at the institution. On many occasions, faculty members individually or in small groups came and shared their real feelings about a variety of issues, especially how their supervisors or other administrators were treating them.

Learn the specific culture of the institution and respect it. While a chief academic officer should lead an institution forward, they must also demonstrate a clear understanding of and respect for its past history and the contributions of the many people who came beforehand. That involves, of course, a long learning process. Seeking out wise senior faculty leaders at the beginning of your tenure for ongoing, private counsel is always helpful.

During my first few weeks at St. Norbert College, a group of faculty leaders invited me to an out-of-town retreat at one of their resort homes to brief me on the past history and present circumstances of the college. That helpful information allowed me to receive a personalized and early lesson on the culture of the institution, which served me well in the following years there.

Keep up your academic credentials. Coming up through the faculty ranks, serving in a various administrative positions on a part-time or full-time basis, and developing strong academic credentials in teaching, scholarship and service can help you establish credibility with faculty, staff and students. I have made an effort at each of the institutions where I’ve served in an administrative position to continue to teach and do research, on, albeit, a limited degree. My colleagues have noted and appreciated those efforts.

I was gratified, for example, that the members of the English department at St. Norbert College considered me a colleague and invited me to all of the departmental functions. They treated me like an administrator who was first and foremost a faculty member. And I appreciated that very much. To lead by example means not just saying, but doing, and a good academic leader most continue to be a teacher/scholar to whatever extent possible.

Don’t pursue a hidden agenda. A good chief academic officer must be open, consistent and fair -- no side deals allowed. If you can’t defend a decision in the daylight, you shouldn’t make it in the twilight. Indeed, the agenda must always be transparent and widely understood. I once had a critic publicly support me by saying to a colleague: “What are you surprised at? He is doing exactly what he said he was going to do.”

Develop a finely honed sense of humor and a thick skin. Self-deprecating humor endears and disarms. You should take the duties of the position seriously but not yourself. I’ve learned that 97 percent of the attacks are not personal.

Learn to listen. The Benedictine Sisters of the College of St. Scholastica put the issue well when, quoting St. Benedict, they say, “Listen with the ear of your heart.” A strong chief academic officer hones the skill of good, honest listening. Lessons from the past may or may not fit the particular case in front of one. For instance, a chief academic officer may quickly try to apply insights from a previous experience and not take time to fully comprehend the distinct situation at hand. And the faculty or staff member may not directly address the real issue, which only an honest conversation can reveal. Thus, the good chief academic officer needs to hear what is unsaid as well as what is said.

Be a problem solver. A good chief academic officer always has to deal with a host of vexing challenges under pressure. That requires thinking beyond the current situation and striving to come up with creative, fair and consistent solutions.

For example, an academic administrator will often find themselves confronted with a one-off request for a salary adjustment from a faculty or staff member. It is difficult to say no to an honest request. But making a single salary adjustment without considering the larger context is most often a long-term problem. Doing a comprehensive salary study takes time, as do phased-in adjustments, which apply to all faculty and staff members. It took us a good number of years to make market-based salary adjustments for all faculty and staff at St. Norbert. But it was the correct, long-term, fair and consistent solution.

Be a good team player. A good provost is first among equals when it comes to working with other senior administrators, as the core business of any college is its academic programs. But first among equals also means supporting colleagues in senior leadership roles. Good chief academic officers don’t take the job for prestige, ego or self-aggrandizement. Instead, they serve because they find satisfaction in improving their institution by helping those who work there do their jobs better. That includes learning about other people’s work by visiting them on scheduled and unscheduled bases.

From my experience, chief academic officers who did not succeed:

  • lacked relevant experience;
  • did not have a long-term plan for academic excellence;
  • did not listen carefully and wisely to constituents;
  • did not share information regularly and accurately above and below;
  • kept their presidents in the dark;
  • were nakedly ambitious; and
  • were arrogant and lacking in self-understanding and humor.

In contrast, the successful chief academic officer seeks counsel from friends and critics alike, forms a strong working relationship with the president, is a good team member, strives for fairness and consistency, and always remembers that words and actions are viewed as important off the record as well as on it. And that what you say, you had better mean, and what you mean, you had better do.

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Michael T. Marsden, an academic consultant, is dean of the college and academic vice president emeritus at St. Norbert College. He has also served as provost/vice president for academic affairs and research at Eastern Kentucky University, interim provost at Iona College and interim vice president for academic affairs at the College of St. Scholastica. He can be reached at [email protected].


Michael T. Marsden

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