'Walking on Water'

ACE panel participants say presidents need more skills than ever as the world changes around higher education.

March 15, 2017
 

WASHINGTON -- College and university presidents need an ever-widening skill set to succeed amid quickly mounting pressures and fast-changing demands, experts said Tuesday, the final day of the American Council on Education’s annual meeting.

Presidents have to find ways to prepare students for the fast-changing world of work. They need to please or placate a broad range of constituencies, from students to donors to legislators. They must practice financial discipline in often-tight fiscal environments, and presidents face the ever-looming threat of unexpected issues spinning out of control on social media -- sometimes before they even know those issues exist.

Those changes come as presidents are spending fewer years leading colleges or universities before moving on to other jobs or presidencies at different institutions. In short, the role is a crucible, one that is very different from 100 or even 10 years ago.

The pathways to the presidency are also unsettled. Boards and search committees are increasingly looking for nontraditional candidates, including those who were chief business officers or come from outside higher education. Fewer presidents from within higher education are coming from provosts’ offices than in the past.

An ACE panel explored those issues as well as the traits a president needs to perform at a high level in today’s college environment. It’s important to develop talent in a broad range of potential future leaders so they have the skills necessary to lead colleges and universities, said Lynn M. Gangone, vice president of ACE leadership. But for prospective presidents, the job descriptions and institutions’ goals can seem overwhelming at a time when many presidents feel pressed for time and money.

“You read the prospectus, and often it’s someone is walking on water,” Gangone said. “Can one individual do all of those things that all of those [prospectuses] say about who we are and who we need to be in that role?”

Gangone believes it’s important for presidents to plan in multiple ways. They need to consider strategic planning, how to handle institutions’ budgets and recruiting diverse faculty members. They also need to be prepared for unexpected phone calls at 3 a.m. about a death on campus.

Gangone called on leaders to reflect on their own strengths and weaknesses. They should build out their cabinets with others who complement those strengths, she said.

Successful leaders must strike a balance, according to Josh Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute, which has researched successful community colleges and their leaders.

Presidents who succeed are often those who lead change and take risks -- but not those who are too disruptive, Wyner said. It’s a difficult path.

“That is rocket science in a lot of ways,” Wyner said. “It is not easy in a decentralized institution, which higher education institutions inherently are, where departments control curricula, where you’ve got, often, divisions between academics and student services.”

Wyner also discussed findings from recent interviews with 35 college presidents -- a group made up of roughly equal numbers of leaders from community colleges, small liberal arts institutions, research universities and regional public universities. Those findings include that leaders need to be skilled in finance, creating a vision, communications, marketing, fund-raising and dealing with lawmakers.

That won’t surprise anyone, as they’re skills presidents have long needed, Wyner said. But he also laid out a series of new and emerging competencies that are necessary in light of changes happening in society and on campuses.

Those competencies included improving student success markers like graduation or job-placement rates. They also included holding costs down, adapting to changes in student population demographics and handling social media crises.

Gone are the days when a president is the first to know about issues, Wyner said. Now, a president may very well find out about an issue after thousands of other people are buzzing about it online.

That can put pressure on presidents of higher educational institutions, which have long relied on slower, deliberative processes between faculty members and other constituents.

“Some of those relate to just the speed of decision making,” Wyner said. “Things are happening very quickly now, and the decentralized and consensus-building processes on college campuses often are at odds with the speed at which change is happening in the external world.”

Presidents also need to connect to the world of work in order to prepare their students for careers, Wyner said. Expectations are placed upon presidents to set up partnerships with outside organizations and to prepare students for workplaces that will be drastically changed by technology.

Panelists also discussed the fact that presidential tenures are shortening. It usually takes five years to plan changes and implement them with an institution's constituent groups, Gangone said. That means many institutions lose momentum when presidents move on after a short period of time, said Jeffrey J. Selingo, a visiting scholar at Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities and the author of There Is Life After College: What Parents and Students Should Know About Navigating School to Prepare for the Jobs of Tomorrow.

The Pathway to the Presidency

Selingo and his fellow panelists also discussed how the pathway to the college presidency is changing. Selingo conducted research expected to come out in mid-April attempting to assess from where the next generation of college presidents will come. That research included an analysis of more than 800 sitting presidents’ curriculum vitae.

“One of the things we found from our CV data mining is that in recent years, the pathway to the presidency is increasingly skipping the provost’s office,” he said. “One of the most popular routes is now from dean to president, especially at smaller institutions.”

More men are taking the dean-to-president route, Selingo said. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to become provosts before moving on to presidencies.

Even as pressures mount on institutions to change, many boards aren’t fully considering the need for change-management skills when they pick a new president, Wyner said. Trustees are often former students at an institution, and they tend to look at it nostalgically, as something that should remain the same as they remember it. Many times, they simply don’t think about a president’s capacity to drive or navigate change.

“Boards tend to care about relationship building and fiscal strength of the institution when they’re doing their searches,” Wyner said. “They tend to not pay much attention to the change-management ability of the individuals.”

Selection committees are starting to more frequently say they want candidates who already have presidential experience, Gangone said. That’s a problem for the cause of increasing diversity among college presidents, because it makes it harder for women and minority candidates who have not been presidents previously to break into the role.

Yet interest in nontraditional candidates from outside higher education is high. Those from other fields can bring important skills to the table, Wyner said. But they can also encounter trouble stemming from the fact that they are not familiar with higher education and its intricacies.

Wyner suggested yearlong fellowships to help train nontraditional candidates who are interested in entering presidential roles at colleges and universities.

“We’re going to have nontraditional presidents from outside the academy who become presidents,” he said. “The question is, are they going to flame out, or can they be transformational leaders?”

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