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A photo illustration of themes from Inside Higher Ed's survey of college presidents.

The Inside Higher Ed survey of college presidents offers a sweeping view of leadership challenges.

Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | Getty Images | Rawpixel

College leaders across the U.S. are confident about their institution's finances, worried about waning public confidence in higher education and the upcoming presidential election, and ambivalent about artificial intelligence, the latest Inside Higher Ed survey of College and University Presidents shows.

Now in its 14th year, the survey has evolved in accordance with higher education trends. The 2024 edition marks the first time presidents were asked about artificial intelligence. Altogether, 380 presidents from 206 public and 174 private, nonprofit institutions participated.

As is often the case, presidents generally viewed their own institutions more positively than higher education as a whole.

Artificial Intelligence

After ChatGPT was released in late 2022, artificial intelligence took the higher education world by storm, both as a buzzword and a bogeyman. The immediate response across higher education tilted toward distrust, given the potential for academic misconduct by students looking to the software for help.

One opinion piece in Inside Higher Ed declared Chat GPT “a plague on higher education,” even as others urged educators to prepare for an AI revolution that would soon change the workforce. 

Colleges scrambled to update their academic integrity policies; some have since deployed courses to teach students how to use such tools ethically. For their part, presidents expressed decidedly mixed views on the technology: 50 percent of survey respondents said they were somewhat or very optimistic about the rise of AI.

“I think the consensus is that people need to more or less think about this as a new set of tools,” said S. David Wu, president of Baruch College, which launched an AI think tank last fall.

Wu believes that AI will drive “the most massive workforce transformation in our lifetime,” disrupting a variety of jobs, including in white collar fields such as accounting. He said higher education has to be proactive to outfit students with the skills they need for workforce changes.

“The question then becomes, ‘How do we get in front of it, how do we actually address this issue head on?’ Our responsibility as educators is to prepare students for the future,” Wu said.

Half of the presidents surveyed may be optimistic about AI, but only a third said they somewhat or strongly believe that their institution is prepared to navigate its rise. Looking further afield, only 17 percent said they think the higher education sector as a whole is prepared to handle the technology.

As for how presidents said their institutions are using AI so far, the largest share, nearly half (45 percent), cited virtual chat assistants and chatbots from a long list of possible options. That was followed by analytics to predict student performance (31 percent).

Not quite one in five presidents (18 percent) said their institution has published a policy governing the use of AI, including in teaching and research.

More on the Survey

Inside Higher Ed’s 2024 Survey of College and University Presidents was conducted by Hanover Research. The survey included 380 presidents from public and private nonprofit institutions for a margin of error of 4.66 percent. A copy of the free report can be downloaded here.

On Wednesday, March 27, Inside Higher Ed will present a free webcast to discuss the results of the survey. Please register here.

The Inside Higher Ed Survey of College and University Presidents was made possible by support from EY-Parthenon, Mantra Health, TimelyCare, Jenzabar, VitalSource, The Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi and Lumina Foundation.

2024 Election Outlook

Many leaders expressed worry about the outcome of the presidential election in November. More than half—55 percent—said they are very or extremely concerned about how the 2024 election results will affect diversity, equity and inclusion at their institution. Another 53 percent are very or extremely concerned about what the election will mean for free inquiry and civil dialogue.

“I think there's great worry that a Trump administration could be calamitous to higher education,” said G. David Gearhart, chancellor emeritus at the University of Arkansas.

He noted that most college presidents hope Biden will be re-elected, not because of what the incumbent brings to the table but rather out of fear that a second Trump term would elevate culture war battles on campus and beyond, given past skirmishes and recent campaign rhetoric.

The Biden Administration

While many college presidents may be worried about a second Trump term, they aren’t exactly happy with Biden. Only 33 percent of respondents indicated some degree of satisfaction with what the Biden administration has accomplished for higher education.

According to the survey, 41 percent of presidents were completely or somewhat dissatisfied with Biden. Presidents overseeing public institutions were more satisfied (41 percent) with the Biden administration's accomplishments than their counterparts at private universities (23 percent).

The State of Campus Speech

Since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, prompting a retaliatory war in Gaza that has killed tens of thousands of civilians, the politics of the conflict have spilled over onto many campuses. The tensions have played out in competing student protests, a flurry of presidential statements and even a Congressional hearing on campus antisemitism that ultimately led to the resignation of two Ivy League presidents.

But despite the uproar and furor, most presidents (82 percent) believe the climate for open inquiry and dialogue on their campus is good or excellent. However, only 30 percent said the same holds true for higher education as a whole.

“I think it's a president's way of saying it hasn't been a big problem on my campus,” said Guilbert Hentschke, dean emeritus of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California, suggesting that they look differently at campuses that may have struggled with unruly protests or free speech blow-ups.

An overwhelming majority of presidents (93 percent) said their institution applies its speech policies fairly across all groups, but only 54 percent said the same of the sector as a whole.

About one in five presidents (21 percent) said that current world events have stressed their campus speech policies to the extent that they may need to be reevaluated.

Race on Campus

Presidents see race relations improving on campus; 83 percent of respondents rated the state of race relations at their institution campus as good or excellent, up from 78 percent last year. Another 16 percent described race relations as fair and just 1 percent perceived them as poor.

Broken down by race, white (85 percent) and Black (79 percent) presidents were more likely than their Latino peers (65 percent) to describe their campus race relations as good or excellent.

Once again, presidents expressed more optimism about their own campus than higher education as a whole, with 38 percent of survey respondents rating race relations across the sector as good or excellent, 56 percent as fair and 7 percent as poor. White presidents were most likely to characterize race relations as good or excellent.

Regarding the consideration of race in admissions, only 14 percent of presidents said that their university factored race into such decisions before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down affirmative action last June. Despite the change, 63 percent of those presidents and 89 percent of presidents whose institutions did not previously consider race in admissions believe they will maintain current diversity levels.

Waning Public Confidence

Most presidents—66 percent—expressed worry about waning public confidence in higher education.

They cited the top reasons for public skepticism as affordability (36 percent), concerns about workforce preparation (27 percent), and perceived ideological bias (16 percent). And more than half of presidents (57 percent) believe there is validity to the cost concerns.

Experts said presidents are right to be worried about such issues.

“I think there is a widespread cynicism toward higher education, and not without reason,” Wu said, noting that a college degree is out of reach for many students due to soaring costs and that doubts about the return on investment have undermined confidence in higher education.

Gearhart pointed out that in addition to the public, many elected officials are concerned about the value of a college degree.

“I think there's a feeling among many legislators that we’re not doing a good job of preparing students and I think that presidents and chancellors should be concerned about it,” he said.

With more legislative pressure likely to come, Gearhart said college presidents need to become more hands-on with lawmakers and beef up their government relations staff to build better connections with elected officials in the face of increased scrutiny.

Financial Stability

Though enrollment challenges and rising operating costs have driven numerous colleges out of business in recent years, roughly eight in 10 survey respondents, or 82 percent, reported feeling confident about their institution’s financial stability over the next five years. Even when the timeline was expanded to 10 years, 80 percent of presidents expressed confidence in their institution's financial health.

Given recent financial and enrollment challenges across the sector, Hentschke said that presidents are watching their finances more closely than ever.

“There's a little more fiscal wisdom on the streets these days,” Hentschke said.

Still, he suggested that presidents can at times be overconfident in their fiscal outlook. Hentschke, who is a consultant with Higher Ed Consolidation Solutions, said that presidents often think their institutions have more runway than they do and don’t see the warning signs until it's too late.

“It's easy to feel that you're in good shape if you're not in bad shape,” Hentschke said.

Some outside observers noted that there may be a degree of selection bias at play, with presidents at struggling colleges less likely to fill out the survey or offer an honest assessment of their finances.

“It is not likely you're going to get very many presidents that are going to respond negatively about the financial condition of their institutions, even if it is perilous,” Gearhart said.

Mergers and Closures

The sense of financial stability seemed to carry over into responses about mergers and closures. Only three percent of presidents said they weren't confident that their institution will continue as a freestanding institution. One in six presidents—or 16 percent—indicated that senior administrators have had serious internal discussions in the last year about merging. Leaders of private nonprofit institutions were more likely (24 percent) to have had such conversations than those at public institutions (9 percent). And 17 percent of respondents said their institution should consider a merger in the next five years—down from 27 percent last year.

Experts noted that mergers are often extraordinarily complex; it can be difficult to find the right fit between two institutions or to make the numbers work when one colleges takes on another that's struggling.

“It's very hard to find another institution that’s not in such bad shape you wouldn't want it. But if they're in such good shape, they don't want you. I think some presidents are learning that if you’re on the sell side, you’re desperate but if you’re on the buy side you’re on the hunt,” Hentschke said. “But to find one you really want at a value you can have is very hard.”

He noted that non-merger partnerships are another option that can offer value, pointing to shared services agreements and other types of arrangements that stop short of a coupling.

Pursuing the Presidency

Given the pressures of the presidency, it perhaps comes as no surprise that those in the job might discourage their peers from pursuing a similar position. Among respondents, 32 percent said they were more likely now than in 2020 to discourage talented colleagues from taking the job of president.

They identified the greatest pressures on the presidency to be financial constraints (25 percent); enrollment challenges (20 percent); too many responsibilities and not enough time (12 percent); external political pressures (9 percent); personnel challenges and management (7 percent); and a lack of appetite for the changes they want to make (7 percent).

Gearhart said it is “sad and unfortunate” that presidents are discouraging their peers, but he's not surprised given the “24/7” nature of the job, which is unpredictable and fraught with thorny politics both on campus—where presidents must answer to an assortment of constituents—and in the broader community. He added that it's not an easy job to secure, and the best candidate isn’t always selected.

“Getting a presidency can be political,” he said. “It can be a crapshoot.”

Gearhart recounted a Southeastern Conference presidents meeting in his early days at Arkansas where a peer told him, “You're going to spend the first year wondering how in the world you got here, among all of these presidents, and you're going to spend the rest of your time wondering how they got here.” 

Mental Health

Student mental health was another area where presidents showed confidence in their approach.

More than half—57 percent—agreed somewhat or strongly that their institution has enough clinical capacity to meet the mental health needs of their undergraduate population. And 94 percent said that they have taken at least one non-clinical step to promote mental health and campus well-being since 2020, such as emphasizing social connections or other measures.

Presidents pointed to an array of reasons driving the increased demand for mental health services, including the prevalence of social media (86 percent), decreased socialization skills caused by the coronavirus pandemic (74 percent), loneliness (68 percent), pre-existing mental health conditions (62 percent), declining student resilience (62 percent) and other causes. Of all the factors deemed responsible for deteriorating student mental health, academic stress ranked the lowest, cited by only 42 percent of presidents.

Flexible Work Arrangements

Workplace flexibility in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic is a mixed bag, according to the presidents surveyed.

Nearly half of presidents (44 percent) said their college offers a mix of in-person, hybrid or fully remote work arrangements. Almost a quarter (23 percent) noted that non-faculty staff members may work remotely one day a week and 19 percent allow staff to work remotely up to four days a week; 12 percent of presidents indicated no flexible work arrangements for non-faculty staff.

In all, 61 percent said that less than a quarter of non-faculty staff are in flexible, hybrid, or fully remote work arrangements this spring. Fifty-five percent said that less than a quarter of faculty members have flexible work arrangements.

Presidents in the South were least likely to cite flexible work arrangements.

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