Happy but Not Looking to Be the Chief

Study of chief academic officers finds that they like their jobs. But in potential break with traditional patterns, they don't necessarily want to become presidents.
February 10, 2009

WASHINGTON -- It has long been the case that the most common position for someone to hold before becoming a college president is that of chief academic officer (frequently with the title of provost). These days, it's not so clear that chief academic officers want to move up -- or even that they consider the presidency a step up.

Only 30 percent aspire to be presidents, according to a study released here Monday by the American Council on Education. The study is a new one, based on a national survey, so there are not data from previous years for comparison purposes. But given the prevalence of the provost-to-president job track, the report's findings suggest either that the nature of jobs may need to be changed, or that different tracks may become more common.

Notably, the relative lack of interest in the presidency doesn't mean that provosts are miserable. They are happy. Among all chief academic officers, 63 percent are very satisfied with their jobs, the study found, while 33 are somewhat satisfied. Long-term chief academic officers are even happier, with 84 percent reporting that they are very satisfied.

The top uses of time the chief academic officers described are largely academic, with work on curricular and related academic matters taking the top spot, followed by supervising personnel such as deans, working on accountability or accreditation issues, strategic planning, and the hiring and promotion of faculty members. (One key factor: The survey was conducted last spring, before the collapse of the economy that no doubt has shifted the way some provosts must spend their time, and that may have also affected their job satisfaction.)

Given the "outside" role presidents play -- raising money, wooing legislators, representing the campus -- some experts here said it was possible that the chief executive officers were wise not to have a knee-jerk plan to seek a presidency. The jobs are sufficiently different that happiness in one would not necessarily translate, they said. Indeed the top reason given by chief academic officers for not wanting a presidency was that the work was unappealing (a view held by 66 percent).

But there were interesting opinions offered on whether academics should be concerned about the relative lack of interest in presidencies.

Peter D. Eckel, director of programs and initiatives at ACE and one of the authors of the report, said he thinks the chief academic officer position remains a crucial training ground for presidents. The chief academic officer uniquely has "the comprehensive breadth" of a college or university, and thus has the full context needed to lead institutions.

Jean A. Dowdall, a presidential search consultant at Witt/Kieffer, said she believes that deanships have come to "far more resemble" presidencies than do provostships. Deans combine internal and external responsibilities, are active fund raisers, and represent their colleges, she said. Dowdall acknowledged that deans may lack the breadth of duties of a provost and the "leader of leaders" experience of other positions. But she suggested that deans might still gain those qualities by working on larger institutional projects that cross college or division lines.

"We should broaden our sense of potential pathways," she said.

Some think that would be great for higher education. Mildred García, president of California State University at Dominguez Hills, said of the traditional career path: "I hope it can be blown up." García said that while many female and minority academics have advanced in academic affairs, many others have seen their careers take off in student affairs or other parts of the university, and that considering non-provosts will help diversify the pool of potential presidents. (García, who is on her second presidency, rose through the ranks with administrative jobs in academic affairs, academic personnel, and student affairs.)

The chief academic officers responding to the survey placed academic issues as those most important to their jobs.

What Chief Academic Officers Views As Most Important About Their Jobs

Duty % Citing (Respondents
could pick two items)
Promoting academic quality 56%
Setting academic vision 46%
Leading change and fostering innovation 31%
Ensuring student success 27%
Managing faculty hiring, retention and retirement 10%
Advocating on behalf of the faculty 10%
Supporting the president and managing up 8%
Making important decisions even when impossible 6%
Fixing financial problems and spending money wisely 4%
Help advance knowledge and scholarship 2%

Even if chief academic officers are generally happy with their jobs, there are aspects that they don't like -- generally having to do with lack of time and money, and an excess of bickering.

Top Frustrations of Chief Academic Officers

Situation % Citing (Respondents
could pick two items)
Never enough money 48%
Difficulty cultivating leadership in others 34%
Belief that you are infinitely accessible 32%
Curmudgeonly faculty 17%
Campus infighting 15%
Unresponsive campus governance structures 14%
Unclear expectations and metrics of success 13%
Expectations for revenue and influence of the market 10%
Relationships with other administrators 8%
Meddlesome board members 4%

The ACE survey also documents some key demographics about chief academic officers.

Eighty-five percent are white, while 6 percent are African American, 4 percent are Hispanic, 2 percent are Asian American, and approximately 1 percent are American Indians. Women hold 40 percent of the positions, with the greatest proportion (50 percent) in community colleges and the lowest (32 percent) at doctoral universities.

Questions about family responsibilities and characteristics of chief academic officers show that they are less likely than their male counterparts to be married, have children, or to have had someone alter a career on their behalf.

Family Responsibilities and Characteristics of Chief Academic Officers, by Gender

Family Characteristic Women Men
Marital status    
--Married 68.8% 90.5%
--Never married 6.7% 2.6%
--Never married (member of religious order) 2.3% 0.8%
--Domestic partner 3.7% 1.6%
--Separated 1.2% 0.8%
--Divorced 14.4% 2.8%
--Widowed 2.9% 1.1%
Have children 69.1% 88.3%
Have children under 18 14.5% 26.1%
Altered career to care for others 30.5% 9.1%
Altered career for others' career 28.7% 11.2%
Others altered career for chief academic officer 35.2% 51.2%


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