The Graying of the Presidency

Length of tenure and age of college leaders rise in survey. Numbers for women increase slightly, while declining for blacks.
February 12, 2007

Much publicized ousters of presidents at Harvard University (Lawrence H. Summers), Gallaudet University (where Jane Fernandes didn't even get to take office) and elsewhere have contributed to a prevailing wisdom that presidencies are just too difficult, too political and too draining for anyone to last very long. Difficult, political, draining -- all true. But it turns out that presidents are staying in office longer than at any point in the last 20 years.

A study released today by the American Council on Education found that the mean number of years in current presidencies was 8.5 in 2006, up from 6.6 the last time the study was done (in 2001) and up from 6.3 the first time the study was done (in 1986).

Not surprisingly, given the increased length of tenure, the average age of presidents is up, leading the council to predict that the United States may be about to see a sharp increase in presidential retirements. Diversity is also up with more presidents who are not white males. But while the selection of Drew Gilpin Faust as Harvard's next leader led to an explosion of articles this weekend about women as college leaders, the study found that the rate of progress in that regard has slowed, and that while women have been gaining presidencies in the last five years, their relative increase in the share of top jobs on campus is smaller than it was a decade ago. Minority gains have also been modest.

In terms of longevity in office, presidents last longer at private institutions (where the mean length of tenure was 9.1 years) than at publics (8.1 years). But some of the biggest gains in length of tenure have come in the public sector. Among doctoral institutions, for example, the length of mean tenure at private institutions increased to 8.3 in 2006 from 8.2 in 1986. At public institutions, the average number of years in office increased to 7.4 years in 2006 from 5.1 years in 1986.

Mean Years in Office for Current Presidents, 2006

Sector Public Private All
Doctoral 7.4 8.3 7.6
Master's 8.1 9.9 9.0
Baccalaureate 6.9 8.2 8.1
Community colleges 8.4 10.8 8.5
Specialized 6.7 9.8 9.4

The number of years that many presidents are serving as campus chief executives is actually understated by the mean years in office. That's because an increasing number of presidents have been presidents elsewhere. In 2006, 21.4 percent of presidents had previously served as presidents, compared to 20.4 percent who had done so in 2001, and 17.3 percent who had done so in 1986. But the figure was even higher for recently hired presidents (defined as those hired since January 2004). In that group, 28.6 percent had been presidents prior to taking on their current presidency.

James C. Renick, senior vice president for programs and research at the American Council on Education and the former chancellor of North Carolina A&T University, said that there is a relationship between the increasing mean for years in office and the increasing number of presidents who have been presidents before.

"Boards are working very hard to keep presidents in office because they perceive there to be a limited pool of people" qualified to lead colleges, Renick said. With presidents spending so much of their time with "external constituents" -- potential donors, lawmakers and others -- boards worry about giving the job to academic administrators "who have spent most of their careers dealing with internal constituents."

Presidents who succeed over a period of years say that there are key advantages to that longevity. Frances Lucas, president of Millsaps College, said that the longer a president is in office, the closer the relationships become between the president and the campus and potential donors. Lucas was named to her position in 2000, and her board recently extended her contract to 2011. She said her perspective comes in part from growing up as the daughter of a college leader, Aubrey K. Lucas, who was president of the University of Southern Mississippi for almost 22 years.

"Long time presidents have a stake in the ground with all of their constituent groups," she said.

Les Garner, who is in his 13th year as president of Cornell College, in Iowa, said that he is seeing progress only now "on things I aspired to do in my first year." The issue with leading colleges, he said, is not just having a vision, but aligning faculty, alumni, trustees, students and others behind specific goals. It takes time to get groups united behind change "and to change the culture of a place," he said. Garner said he thought his impact would be far greater at Cornell than at North Carolina Wesleyan College, where he was president for seven years.

Of course with all of those presidents staying longer, they are getting older. The American Council on Education data show far fewer presidents in the 50 and under demographic and far more in the 61 and older group than was the case 20 years ago.

Age Groups of College Presidents

Age 1996 2006
31-50 41.6% 8.1%
51-60 44.4% 42.6%
61 and older 13.9% 49.3%

Jacqueline King, director of the ACE Center for Policy Analysis, said that these demographics suggest that "a significant wave of retirements" is probably on the way.

King said that one negative impact of the increased longevity of presidential tenures and the interest of boards in hiring current presidents is that they have led to "a slower rate of change in terms of diversity of presidents." Younger academics are more diverse than their senior counterparts but aren't going to end up on many presidential short lists, she said.

In looking at the diversity of presidents, the data show modest gains on gender and race, but declines or stagnation with the appointments of members of some groups.

The percentage of presidents who are women is more than double what it was 20 years ago (23.0 percent, up from 9.5 percent). But despite the much discussed appointments of women to lead Ivy institutions, most of the gains appear to have come more than a decade ago, public institutions are far more likely than private to be led by women, and community colleges are much more likely than four-year institutions to be led by women.

Percentage of Presidencies Held by Women, by Sector

Sector 1986 1998 2001 2006
Doctoral 3.8% 13.2% 13.3% 13.8%
Master's 10.0% 18.7% 20.3% 21.5%
Baccalaureate 16.1% 20.4% 18.7% 23.2%
Community colleges 7.9% 22.4% 26.8% 28.8%
Specialized 6.6% 14.8% 14.8% 16.6%
Total 9.5% 19.3% 21.1% 23.0%

The report from the ACE notes that the relatively small percentage of college presidencies held by women stands out because women have moved into the senior academic ranks from which presidents tend to be selected. "If the proportion of women who serve as senior administrators and as full-time faculty provides a standard for equity, then women remain underrepresented as presidents," the report says. Since 45 percent of faculty and senior administrators in higher education are women, "these data suggest that more leadership development, mentoring, and networking -- as well as greater efforts by institutions to identify and attract women leaders -- are needed."

The survey found continued -- but narrowing -- differences in the marital status of men and women who serve as presidents. Male presidents are much more likely than their female counterparts to be married. However, whereas in 1986 only 35 percent of female presidents were married, that figure is up to 63 percent.

Marital Status of Presidents, 2006

Status Men Women
Married 89.3% 62.6%
Never married (not in religious order) 2.6% 9.9%
Never married (clergy barred from marriage) 2.6% 5.8%
Widowed 0.9% 5.2%
Divorced or separated 4.1% 13.8%
Domestic partner 0.6% 2.7%

The situation for minority presidents is in some ways similar to that for women: big gains if you compare to 20 years ago, but only incremental gains in recent years. The share of minority presidents in 2006 was 13.5 percent, up from 12.8 percent in 2001. The share of minority presidents in 2006 drops to 9 percent if historically black institutions, Hispanic-serving colleges, and tribal colleges are excluded. And the percentage of black presidents has declined in the last five years.

Distribution of Presidents by Race/Ethnicity

Race/Ethnicity 1986 1995 2001 2006
White 91.9% 89.3% 87.2% 86.4%
Black 5.0% 5.9% 6.3% 5.9%
Asian American 0.4% 0.8% 1.2% 0.9%
Hispanic 2.2% 2.9% 3.7% 4.5%
American Indian 0.5% 0.8% 1.1% 0.7%
Other n/a n/a 0.5% 1.5%
Total minority 8.1% 10.7% 12.8% 13.5%

Minority presidents are much more likely to be found at public institutions than at private institutions (17.3 percent of presidents vs. 9.3 percent of presidents).

Some of the other findings on presidential demographics in 2006:

  • Religion: The largest group of presidents are Protestants (54.2 percent), followed by Roman Catholic presidents (26.6 percent), presidents without a religion (9.7 percent), Jewish presidents (5.1 percent), other (3.6 percent) and Buddhist (0.9 percent).
  • Highest degree earned: While presidential candidates are sometimes criticized for lacking a Ph.D., only 54.3 percent of presidents in 2006 had one, although another 20.7 percent had an Ed.D. and 1.3 percent had an M.D.
  • Field of study of highest degree earned: Education or higher education led with 43.0 percent, followed by social sciences at 13.8 percent, humanities and fine arts with 13.7 percent, religion and theology at 7.0 percent, business at 4.9 percent and law at 4.7 percent.

The ACE survey also asked presidents how they spend their time, and finance and management clearly beat out academic matters. In the following table, figures add to more than 100 percent because presidents were asked to pick the top 3 areas on which they spend time.

Presidents' Primary Uses of Time, 2006

Activity Public Private Total
Fund raising 28.3% 51.7% 37.7%
Budget/finance 35.4% 34.1% 34.8%
Community relations 29.5% 12.5% 20.9%
Strategic planning 16.0% 25.5% 20.9%
Governing board relations 16.4% 17.7% 16.5%
Personnel issues 15.8% 10.3% 13.9%
Capital improvement projects 13.1% 10.0% 11.4%
Faculty issues 12.2% 8.9% 10.8%
Enrollment management 7.1% 12.7% 10.6%
Academic issues 7.6% 11.7% 10.2%
Government relations 16.3% 1.6% 9.2%

Unfortunately for presidents, it appears that their primary duties only sometimes involve their favorite people. Asked which constituents were most rewarding, both public and private presidents picked students first. Faculty members trailed other administrators for both public and private presidents. Private college presidents find governing board members much more rewarding than do their public colleagues, but public presidents find community members more rewarding.

In last place for both public and private presidents on ranking rewarding constituents, and we'll try not to be hurt: the media.


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