Presidential Career Paths

July 23, 2009

The path to the presidency doesn't necessarily include the provost's office.

That statement -- which might once have been surprising -- is no longer so, and more evidence arrived Wednesday in the form of a study by the Council of Independent Colleges. The CIC, using information from the American Council on Education's database about presidents and their careers, compared the paths to the presidency at its member institutions (small and mid-sized private colleges and universities, many of which identify as liberal arts colleges) and other sectors in higher education.

Only 35 percent of first-time CIC presidents came from provost positions, the study found. Nationally the average was 40 percent. At CIC member institutions, 33 percent came from non-academic officer positions, compared to 23 percent nationally. And another 13 percent of CIC presidents came from outside higher education.

Another sign that traditional academic paths may no longer be the norm to the small college presidency: More CIC presidents earned their doctorates in education or higher education (35 percent) than in the humanities and fine arts (21 percent). Granted, a much larger percentage of community college presidents (75 percent) earned their highest degrees in education or higher education, but many liberal arts college presidents once looked down on that kind of doctoral training.

The findings about provosts are in some ways consistent with an American Council on Education report in February on chief academic officers. The ACE study found that provosts and chief academic officers generally liked their jobs, but that only 30 percent aspired to be presidents. Many experts at the time said that the provosts might actually be showing good judgment: If they liked jobs focused on academic issues, why go for jobs that -- while on the top of the academic hierarchy -- are more likely to focus on fund raising and budgets?

But as the CIC report noted, the movement to hire away from academic positions may have more of an impact on their institutions. "Given the importance of teaching and learning in CIC member colleges and universities, particularly at the undergraduate level, the lower likelihood of presidents coming from the academic ranks, especially from the position of chief academic officer, is striking," the report says.

One possibility, the report says, is that "trustee search committees of CIC institutions may believe that chief academic officers do not have the fund raising and managerial skills they assume are needed to be successful presidents."

The report also notes with concern trends that are similar to those found in studies of academic leaders generally. First-time presidents of CIC colleges are a more diverse group than they used to be, but not moving toward goals that might reflect the overall pool of talent or the general population. The report notes, for example, that much more progress for women is evident in the presidencies of public bachelor's and master's institutions than at the CIC colleges. And, similar to trends in other sectors, the average age of CIC first-time presidents is rising, to 59.

Given the concerns about the lesser likelihood that new presidents have been provosts, the report recommends a two-pronged approach. To make more provosts good candidates for presidencies, the report urges that college leaders spend more time grooming provosts on fund raising, risk and financial management, and other skills that trustees may value highly in presidential selections.

And given that more presidents are being hired from outside the academic ranks, the report suggests that "more opportunities should be provided to orient new presidents from nonacademic backgrounds to faculty, curricular, and shared governance issues, as well as to orient new presidents from outside higher education to the dynamics of academe, especially the particularities of independent higher education."

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