There has recently been increasing attention in higher education circles to what some fear is a looming crisis for the college presidency: the large number of anticipated presidential retirements in the coming decade at a time when, according to a 2009 American Council on Education report,  "National Census of Chief Academic Officers,: more than two-thirds of chief academic officers do not "intend to seek a presidency, despite ACE data that show the most common path to the president's office is through the chief academic officer." Indeed, that same study shows that currently only 20 percent of CAOs go on to become presidents.
But what has been lost in this discussion is an equally key finding: that, as the 2007 ACE American College President Study reports, the average tenure of a chief academic officer  is only 4.7 years, compared to the significantly longer 8.5-year average tenure of all college presidents. This latter statistic suggests that that even as a great many institutions will in the coming years be seeking a new president, they may also find themselves with a dearth of committed academic deans, academic vice presidents and provosts. The 2007 ACE College President Study is explicit about the graying of the presidency, reporting that the average age of college presidents in 2006 was 60 years old, up from the 1986 average age of 52. The even more instructive numbers are that nearly half of all presidents (49 percent) in 2006 were 61 years or older compared to 14 percent 20 years earlier. It is a safe assumption that by the end of this decade most in this group will no longer be presidents.
Given the lack of interest on the part of so many CAOs in becoming presidents, it is somewhat ironic that their terms are shorter than that of presidents. Specifically, 21 percent of CAOs leave their position within the first year and 47 percent within their second-fifth year compared to only 11 percent of presidents who leave within their first year and 27 percent who leave within their second-fifth year. But the even more important implication of this trend is that many colleges and universities may soon be hard pressed to attract talented faculty members to positions of academic leadership.
The 2009 ACE study on CAOs reports that the major hesitations that CAOs have about becoming presidents are that they "find the nature of presidential work unappealing (66 percent), are ready to retire (32 percent), are concerned about the time demands of the position (27 percent) and don't want to live in a fishbowl (24 percent)." In other words, the very reason that CAOs don’t want to become presidents may explain why they are not staying longer in their current position: that the work of the CAO today goes beyond being responsible for the faculty and the academic programs and includes at least some of the responsibilities and characteristics of the presidency. We also know anecdotally that some CAOs are short-timers because the president who hired them has left the institution and the new president wants to select her or his own CAO.
Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges in his September 19, 2010 piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Imminent Crisis in College Leadership” puts it this way: "At both public and independent institutions, academic leaders say presidential duties are inherently unattractive in comparison with their own jobs or those of faculty members. At state colleges, the added discouragement of ‘sunshine’ laws depresses the number of potential candidates, who do not want their candidacies for other positions to be widely known. More than anything else, however, it is the increasingly external orientation of presidential duties that best explains why only 30 percent of all chief academic officers (and just 24 percent of them at independent colleges) still aspire to become college presidents."
A recent ad for the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Lewis & Clark College, which also includes a law school and a graduate school, provides a striking illustration of how decanal responsibilities today not only include the faculty and the academic programs but also mirror those of presidents. Specifically, Lewis & Clark (where I served as academic vice president from 1990-2), hopes that its new dean will accomplish the following:
- Articulate a vision and plan that will inspire and guide the CAS community.
- Develop the financial resources necessary for the college to support its aspirations.
- Serve as an effective and progressive manager for faculty and staff.
- Promote excellence in teaching and research through enhanced programs and infrastructure.
- Create the necessary external partnerships to achieve the vision, within Lewis & Clark and beyond.
Even more specifically, the ad further specifies:
The dean will offer a clear, comprehensive vision of the CAS that builds upon existing strengths … while articulating institutional goals for growth and development in order to inspire our community and distinguish Lewis & Clark among liberal arts colleges across the nation….
The dean will work side-by-side with the president in fundraising, and will use the vision for the college to create a compelling message that will attract contributions from a wide array of donors, including alumni, foundations, and major gift benefactors. Lewis & Clark plans to launch a major capital campaign for which preparations have begun, and the dean will play an important role in leading a successful campaign. The dean will improve financial management on the campus, lead staff and faculty to leverage revenues to achieve a larger impact, and adopt more sophisticated systems for budgeting and resource allocation to enable long-term strategic planning.
There are a myriad of additional reasons why, in my judgment, many CAOs are short-timers, including at least the following:
Most chief academic officers come from the faculty, having come up through the faculty ranks, only to discover that their new roles require them not only to make judgments about their colleagues in terms of tenure and promotion but often to make difficult budgetary decisions, including perhaps laying off faculty and staff members alike. Some chief academic officers who have been promoted from within the institution have difficulty saying no to friends and former colleagues. Others want to be loved more than respected and so are appalled when they find themselves easily vilified by those to whom they had previously been close.
More than a few chief academic officers have also found themselves at odds with their president and even their trustees because they have not been able to think and act institutionally. I know of several provosts who have lost the confidence of their presidents and in some instances their positions because they were unwilling, in a time of financial shortfalls, to recommend cuts in the academic budget. I also know a number of presidents who, for their part, are cautious about recommending their CAOs, whom they admire in many ways, for presidencies because they fear that they will never, as one president (himself a former CAO) put it to me, be able to stop thinking like a faculty member.
As a corollary, some CAOs are unable to go beyond that part of their role that calls for their being advocates for the faculty and the academic programs, finding themselves uncomfortable with that part of their job description that also requires them to be advocates for the decisions that the president and the board make, especially when these decisions are unpopular with the faculty.
There are also significant differences in the pace by which faculty members and CAOs make decision, in the nature of those decisions and in how they spend their time. For example, many faculty members are specialists in academic areas, which are more theoretical than applied. When they become chief academic officers, they are suddenly expected to be knowledgeable about and make decisions that impact the very practical areas of admissions, financial aid and marketing. As is the case at Lewis & Clark, they are often expected to work with the broader community and to excel as a fund-raiser.
In addition, some CAOs find it difficult to make, often very quickly, the abundance of decisions with which they are confronted on a daily basis because they worry that they either do not have sufficient information or sufficient time for contemplation. For example, I know of a superior teacher and scholar who dismayed his faculty colleagues when he became provost because, having been trained to be analytical and to think about problems from as many points of view as possible, he was unable to make any decisions — large or small -- in a timely way. After six months, members of the search committee who had been his strongest advocates came to the president to tell her that they had made a mistake and that the faculty was about to take a vote of no confidence in the provost. The president met with the provost who admitted that he was miserable in the position. He resigned and returned to a faculty position. The president did a new search. The next provost, who was decisive, served successfully for nearly a decade.
Then, too, some chief academic officers simply miss their old life. They find themselves chafing at endless meetings, often chaired by someone else, missing instead the classrooms over which they had presided pretty much as they wished and a schedule over which they had a great deal of control. Many recognize that they prefer contemplation to crisis management.
For each of these reasons and others, becoming an administrator carries with it negative implications. For example, on many campuses today, faculty members rotate in and out of the position of department chair, thinking of it as an unwanted duty, something akin to extended jury duty, a responsibility that takes them away from their normal lives. Therefore it is not surprising that some candidates, seeking to move into administration from a faculty position, tell search committees that they worry that they will "go over to the dark side." (They are seldom successful.)
Abbreviated administrative tenures lead to a lack of continuity and stability. Some foundations and individual donors may be reluctant to fund institutions where there is a great deal of turnover. Accreditation agencies may have concerns.
A January 13 Inside Higher Ed piece, "Behind a Quiet Retreat,"  illustrates the turmoil that a brief CAO tenure can occasion. In this case, Black Hills State University announced that Provost David Haney, after serving only six months, was returning to his previous institution. Comments from faculty members make it clear that they found this situation unsettling. An English professor told Inside Higher Ed "The whole thing has been handled clumsily.... I've always been proud to be a faculty member at Black Hills, and I don’t know if I can say that right now." The faculty senate president was similarly concerned, saying, "Apparently something blew up. And now we’re just kind of stuck here for a little while. It’s kind of hard to move forward with an interim [provost]."
So what is it that those of us who recognize the critical importance of effective academic leadership need to do to encourage members of our community to bear primary responsibility for the health, quality and integrity of our academic programs, the faculty, the curriculum, the library and often such areas as athletics and technology? How do we persuade them not only about the importance of but also about the satisfaction that derives from being in the number two position in the institution, from being the first among equals among senior administration, from being the person in charge of the campus during presidential absences? And what can and should colleges and universities do to prepare talented faculty members to be effective administrators?
First, institutions need to prepare faculty members to move into the upper levels of academic administration. They need intentionally to provide department chairs with the knowledge that they need to do their jobs well. To this end, the CAO, working with other members of the senior staff, might offer a formal orientation to new department chairs, with the goal of ensuring that the chairs understand:
- The importance of their thinking institutionally and not just in terms of their own department.
- The institution’s mission and its strategic priorities.
- The budgeting process (including the major drivers on the budget) and the role department chairs today play in the budgeting process. A decade ago, chairs typically were given an opportunity to request additions to their departmental operating budgets; their main budget responsibility was to oversee budgets handed to them from above in order to ensure that the department followed institutional guidelines and did not spend more than it was allocated. Now, chairs often need to make cuts rather than to ask for new resources and to do so in the context of institutional rather than departmental needs and priorities.
- The current state of admissions and retention, including information about how chairs and their faculty colleagues can assist in these two critical areas.
- Ways that the institution seeks to integrate the curriculum and co-curricular programs.
- How the student affairs staff can provide support to the chairs, members of the faculty and students
- Information about fund-raising goals, particularly those that relate to the academic programs.
Second, new CAOs too need the knowledge to do their jobs well. Thus, the president must be absolutely clear about his or her expectations for the CAO. The president also needs to define how she or he wishes to work with the CAO. If the CAO will be working directly with trustees, the president needs to be clear how she or he wants this to happen. If the CAO will have responsibilities beyond the academic programs, the president should — if necessary — provide appropriate guidance and should involve the other vice presidents in orienting the CAO.
If the CAO is expected to raise money, the president in collaboration with the vice president for institutional advancement would be well advised to offer the CAO a fundraising tutorial, perhaps akin to one they offer new trustees. They might invite the CAO to accompany them when they cultivate and then solicit potential donors, whether individuals, foundations or corporations.
If the CAO is expected to speak before large groups, such as parents, prospective students, alumni and local community organizations, the president and the appropriate person in campus communications should coach the CAO if coaching is necessary. They should also agree on the messages that the CAO will be giving in such presentations.
The president should be equally clear about the role the chief academic officer will play in crafting the institutional budget. In some institutions, the chief academic officer chairs the process; in others the president or the financial vice president does. In some institutions, the process is open and includes faculty, staff and students; in others, members of the administration alone make all budgetary decisions. In any event, the financial vice president should also spend extended time with the CAO, unpacking the budget and discussing its challenges.
The vice president for enrollment management should explain the admission and retention strategies including such things as the financial aid discount, institutional positioning and net tuition revenue.
The vice president for student affairs should not only describe the opportunities and challenges in that area but flesh out how student and academic affairs are or are not integrated.
Third, new CAOs should try to take advantage of one of the excellent programs on educational leaderships available to them, such as the Council of Independent Colleges' annual Chief Academic Officers Institute, American Council of Education fellowships and its Institute for Chief Academic Officers, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities’ Millennium Leadership Initiative, the two-week Harvard Institute for Educational Management, the Higher Education Resource Services Institutes and the newly developed American Academic Leadership Institute. Unfortunately, only a small portion of chief academic officers are able to take advantage of these programs, most of which last from a few days to several weeks, although some institutions develop a yearlong program in which the CAO has a mentor.
Finally, those of us who have been or who currently are senior administrators need to stop presenting administrative service as something negative. Instead, we need to need to make it clear that administrative work is to be valued. We need to acknowledge and celebrate the positive ways that administrators can facilitate the good work of the faculty, staff and students. And not incidentally, we need to describe the pleasure and satisfaction that this work can bring to those of us who choose this path.
Susan Resneck Pierce is president emerita of the University of Puget Sound, president of SRP Consulting, and senior consultant at Academic Search.