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NATIONAL HARBOR, MD. -- Next time search consultants come to campus looking for the next great college president, they might skip over the provost’s office and head down the hall.

With academic officers, the traditional proving ground for the higher education presidency, losing interest in the job of institution head, discussions here at the annual meeting of the National Association of College and University Business Officers are turning to whether chief business and finance officers might be interested in the job, and  whether they are perhaps better-suited for it.

“That pipeline is shrinking a little bit,” said Ellen Heffernan, partner at Spelman and Johnson Group, an executive search consulting firm, who gave a presentation on “Exploring the Role of a President” here on Monday, talking about the connection between the provost's office and the president's. “We need to think more broadly and look at that senior vice president level and talk to people about moving up to the presidency from a variety of levels.”

Heffernan’s presentation, which attracted about 50 attendees, was one of two sessions Monday that dealt directly with the search process and presidencies, but several talks touched on themes of leadership, including the qualities of good leaders, effective communication, use of social media, and team-building.

With business and academic decisions becoming increasingly intertwined, and both the roles of chief business officers and presidents expanding to encompass a different array of responsibilities than in the past, individuals here have begun to make the case that the CFO’s office might be a better training ground for the top job.

“Historically, presidents have come from the academic side of the house, but the public is more frequently viewing higher education as a business, desiring leaders with a bottom-line mindset,” wrote Patricia A. Charlton, senior vice president and chief of staff at the College of Southern Nevada, in a pamphlet discussing changes in the role of CFO over the past 50 years. “Internally, with budgets changing along with fluctuating enrollments and funding, a president with a strong financial background who understands the day-to-day flow is advantageous.” 

Since the meeting this week is filled mostly with chief business officers, there was little dissension to the idea of moving from the CFO's office to the president's or discussion about the potential drawbacks, but such a shift is likely to generate debates in the broader higher education world.

If governing boards do start to pull more heavily from the CFO ranks in presidential searches, that could be a concern for some faculty members, who have tended to push back against the selection of leaders who they deem to not understand an institution's academic mission. The appointment of individuals without academic backgrounds to university leadership roles tends to generate controversy. 

Such a shift would also likely signal an increased emphasis on treating higher education like a business, rather than a not-for-profit venture or a state agency, including the development of academic programs designed to raise tuition revenue, a subject that has been controversial over the past few years as institutions have tried to cope with economic shifts. 

An Unappealing Move

According to a 2011 survey by the American Council of Education, the chief pathway to the presidency is still the provost’s office, with 34 percent of presidents serving as provosts immediately before becoming president, up from 31 percent in 2006. The numbers were higher among doctoral-granting institutions and lower among community colleges.

But despite the increase in the past five years, there’s reason to worry about whether the pipeline of provosts to the presidency may dry up.

A 2010 study by ACE found that while more than two-thirds of provosts were content in their jobs, only 30 percent of chief academic officers aspired to be college presidents. Two-thirds of respondents who said they didn’t want to pursue a presidency said the work was unappealing. 

At the same time, the industry is likely to see a significant turnover in leadership over the next few years. The average age of presidents has been creeping upward over the past few years, with 58 percent of presidents reporting that they were older than 61.

Making It Their Business

According to the ACE survey of presidents, only 7.4 percent of individuals currently serving in those roles came from the ranks of chief business officers, but there’s reason to believe that percentage might grow soon.

While presidents coming out of the business office are rare at the top institutions, some have been able to garner significant respect in the academic community. For example, Kent John Chabotar, president of Guilford College, who previously served as the chief financial officer at Bowdoin College, regularly speaks to new presidents and board members at various association meetings.

One reason why many argue it makes sense that boards begin to look toward CFOs rather than provosts is that the responsibilities of the presidency have shifted away from managing an institutions’ academic program to questions of strategic planning, marketing, and fund-raising. 

When ACE asked presidents last year to list the areas that occupied the most significant amount of their time, the top four responses were 1) budget and financial management, 2) fund-raising, 3) community relations, and 4) strategic planning. That set of responsibilities aligns much more closely with chief financial officers’ portfolio than that of chief academic officers.

In fact, academic issues were the area that the fewest presidents said they spent time on, with only 12 percent of presidents saying they were highly engaged in that area. Faculty issues also ranked fairly low, with 15 percent of respondents saying it was an area that occupied a large share of their time. In the survey of academic officers in 2010, ACE found that provosts spent the majority of their time on curricular and other academic matters.

The ACE survey of provosts was taken before the economy collapsed in 2009, and many say that the role of provost changed in the wake of that crisis, with budget management -- and collaboration with the business side of the house -- becoming a more central component of their jobs. In a survey of provosts by Inside Higher Ed last fall, 71 percent of provosts said financial concerns dominate their institutions’ discussion about launching new academic programs.

The role of CFO has also changed to make it a potentially better proving ground for presidents. What used to be a solitary job managing the institutions’ finances has moved toward a more collaborative job, at many institutions responsible for anything that doesn’t fall under the academic program -- from athletics to human resources to auxiliary programs. 

And as tuition revenue becomes a chief concern for universities’ bottom lines, business officers are seeing their responsibilities expand into the academic realm. Much of the discussion at this year’s NACUBO conference has focused on how business officers can think strategically about their budgets, including academic programs. 

The discussion here noted several areas where business officers might not be well-versed that they should work on in order to prepare for presidencies, including fund-raising, media relations, and working with shared governance. While boards might be interested in candidates with financial experience, Heffernan said institutions and search committees are still unlikely to accept a candidate who does not have a Ph.D. or comparable degree (and many CFOs don't have those degrees). Having respect for the academic side of the house can go a long way toward building good will among faculty members. "If you can teach a class, that helps," she said.

"It’s different to go from a business and finance view to an institutional view," Heffernan said. "Even through finance touches on every part of the institution, it's a different kind of view."

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