Avoiding the Presidency?

Chief academic officers from many postsecondary institutions express little interest in becoming college or university presidents, but provosts at liberal arts colleges are even less likely to make the big move.

July 20, 2010

Chief academic officers from many postsecondary institutions express little interest in becoming college or university presidents, but provosts at liberal arts colleges are even less likely to make the big move.

A report released today by the Council of Independent Colleges analyzes data from 358 CIC members about their chief academic officers’ job satisfaction, demographics and aspirations to become presidents. The CIC includes small and mid-sized private nonprofit colleges and universities, and the report compares responses from its members' chief academic officers with those of 782 peers from public baccalaureate- and master’s-level institutions, private and public doctoral universities, and public two-year colleges. The CIC report uses data from a 2009 study by the American Council on Education, which looked at CAO trends at 1,700 colleges and universities.

Among the CIC report’s key findings are statistics suggesting that the chief academic officer position is not really a stepping stone to the presidency. Though 96 percent of CIC CAOs are satisfied with their jobs, only 24 percent plan to seek a college presidency. The satisfaction level is on par with that at other institutions, but CAOs everywhere but at private doctoral universities are significantly more interested in the presidency than are those at CIC colleges.

“We knew from the ACE study that there is a small percentage interested in the presidency, and among the CIC chief academic officers it was even smaller, and that surprised us,” said Hal Hartley, CIC senior vice president and lead author of the study. He added that the CIC is concerned about the lack of interest and will expand its professional development efforts to make the presidency a viable option for more people.

The overwhelming consensus among CIC CAOs shows that being a president may simply be work of an “unappealing nature.” Seventy-four percent of CIC CAOs cite this as a factor for not pursuing a presidency, making it a more popular reason than at peer institutions. Other reasons include the undesirable prospect of living in a fishbowl, approaching retirement, or the burdensome time demands. Peer institutions reveal similar trends, though the provosts at non-CIC institutions tend to emphasize factors other than the nature of the work.

Reasons for Not Considering Presidency

Reason % at CIC Colleges % at Other Institutions
Work is unappealing 74% 67%
Do not want to live in a fishbowl 26 35
Ready to retire 26 29
Time demands of the position 25 29
Want to return to academic work 24 24
Don't feel prepared to succeed 18 11
Don't know if I am ready 12 3

Based on these data, CIC CAOs also feel less prepared than CAOs at other universities for taking on a presidency. Those who do seek the position, however, also feel underprepared and express a need for further proficiency in areas such as fund raising, governing board relations, budget and financial management, and risk management and legal issues. The rankings of these areas vary widely across institution type, although fund raising is a top priority for all but public doctoral colleges.

Areas Where CAOs Say They Need More Proficiency

  % at CIC Colleges
Fund Raising 69%
Governing board relations 42
Budget/financial management 32
Risk management/legal issues 31
Government relations 29
Economic development 27

In every type of non-CIC institution, becoming president was one of three top moves for the surveyed CAOs’ predecessors, and the single most common destination in both private and public doctoral colleges. Predecessor CAOs at CIC institutions, however, primarily returned to the faculty, moved to a different CAO position, or retired (despite the fact that, on average, CIC CAOs are younger than at other institutions).

CIC CAOs also stay in the job for about four years, a shorter tenure than CAOs at other types of universities. But why they don’t stay in the position -- despite a high level of satisfaction and a reluctance to move up -- is unclear, and the CIC hopes to investigate this in future studies. Hartley offered several hypotheses, including the fact that there is apparent tension between CAOs and faculty or other senior vice presidents. However, he said the satisfaction data contradict this.

“There’s something else going on that these data don’t reveal, so we will be asking our chief academic officers to help us understand that better,” Hartley said. “It’s a conundrum.”

Hartley said the CIC’s focus now lies in the “broader leadership development front, both preparing candidates for the presidency and preparing candidates for the chief academic officer role." CIC has already established a number of initiatives to move toward these goals.


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