New Presidential Option

ACE announces a training program for new presidents at a time when many foresee large turnover in university administration.

January 4, 2012

College and university presidents often talk about how there are different types of students out there, and many different types of institutions to serve them. But when it comes to training new institutional leaders, there has really only been one option -- Harvard's Graduate School of Education.

But starting this summer, the American Council on Education will launch the Institute for New Presidents, a training program for recently hired university leaders to show them the ropes of university management.

The design of the program seems to put it in direct competition with the Harvard Seminar for New Presidents, a program that has dominated the field since it was created 22 years ago, and has trained many sitting presidents. But officials from both the Harvard program and ACE said the new program simply adds another resource in a field that many complain does not do enough to prepare young presidential aspirants to become leaders at a time when such training is more important than ever.

Higher education is about to see significant turnover in its senior leadership ranks, administrators of both programs said, and there should be enough room in the market for another program to help train presidents, particularly since the ACE program is structured differently from the Harvard seminar. "The increase in presidential retirements is a pressing issue," said Diana Córdova, director of the division of research and programs at ACE. "We want to urge programming that ensures a continuity of leadership for the industry."

Across the country, universities are facing a looming presidential-retirement boom. Between 1986 and 2006, the average age of university presidents rose from 52 to 60, according to a 2007 report by ACE. More than half of all presidents are over the age of 60, Córdova said. The California State University System, the largest public university system in the country, is facing a number of presidential retirements, and lawmakers are urging the system to find ways of developing homegrown talent, rather than hire sitting presidents from other institutions at a high cost.

While the Harvard seminar enrolls an average of 40 to 45 presidents each year, it enrolled 53 this summer. Judith McLaughlin, a Harvard professor who runs the new presidents seminar, said this bump is partly attributable to the amount of turnover.

At the same time, the role of president is, in many ways, more high-profile, more complicated, and more stressful than it used to be. "The challenges facing college presidents today are immense, and few candidates come prepared in all of the key areas of presidential responsibility," said Susan Resneck Pierce, the former president of the University of Puget Sound and occasional author for Inside Higher Ed who recently wrote a book on the responsibilities of presidents.  She said new presidents need to understand the academic enterprise, admissions, retention, financial aid discounting, and institutional positioning. They need to be able to to manage complex budgets both in terms of allocating and reallocating resources. And they need the capacity to be successful fund-raisers. While most incoming presidents have experience in some of these fields, few, if any, have the full complement coming into the job.

"You have to be knowledgeable about a wide range of things, not too knowledgeable about any one thing," said Kent Chabotar, president of Guilford College, who has been speaking at the Harvard seminar for about two decades.

Several associations run sector-specific training programs for new presidents. The Council of Independent Colleges – which represents more than 600 private colleges – runs its own program for new presidents. The American Association of Community Colleges also devotes part of its Presidents Academy Summer Institute to training new presidents. The American Association of State Colleges and Universities also runs a new presidents program each summer.

"I know many presidents who have gone to different programs. They find them helpful in different ways," McLaughlin said. "The best presidents are those who take many opportunities for learning, on their campus and at other events."

Rita Bornstein, former president of Rollins College, who has written on presidential succession, said there is a lack of leadership-training programs and the addition of ACE's institute is good for the field, particularly because it offers a different structure. "I have consistently called on national higher education associations to do more in terms of training presidents," she said. " There is such a huge need that you could have another similar kind of training program by every national higher education association and it still wouldn’t be enough."

The ACE program is designed for new presidents in their first two years. Córdova said the council has not finalized the exact structure and cost of the program, but she said the institute will likely cover eight mostly nonresidential months, beginning with a face-to-face convening of the class held in the summer. She said students will likely engage in a few more in-person sessions supplemented by online activities, and the program will likely conclude with a session during the council’s annual meeting in March. Córdova said ACE has not finalized what the program will cost.

The Harvard program, by contrast, is conducted entirely in person and runs over five and a half days in the summer. That program costs $5,895. The Harvard program is also bigger; the ACE institute hopes to teach about 20 presidents in its inaugural year. McLaughlin and Chabotar said presidents who attend the seminar often say one of the biggest benefits to the program is meeting a network of people in similar roles.

Despite the different structure, the programs focus on teaching presidents about similar issues, and both are open to presidents from all institution types. Córdova said the program will pull from the “thought leadership” ACE has developed over the years, as well as an advisory group of former and current presidents, some of them new themselves, to determine the content of the program.

Both programs teach new presidents how to deal with some standard challenges that come up during a presidency, such how to work with key constituencies such as boards, faculty, staff, and donors and how to assemble high-performing management teams. Inaugural addresses, symbolic leadership, and dos and don'ts of the job (such as, "Don't spend your first dollar renovating the presidential house") are also issues that will likely be covered in both.

Córdova said ACE’s institute is not designed to compete with the Harvard program, just to expand the number of programs serving new presidents at a time of likely high demand. She said the differing structures means the programs might attract different groups of administrators. “The Harvard program is a great program,” she said. “I hope that ours will complement their efforts.”

ACE already offers several presidential-training programs, including the ACE Fellows program, in which aspiring presidents spend time at another institution working with the president there, and a series of presidential roundtables. Cordova said she wants the new presidents institute to be the cornerstone of the group's offerings.

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