WASHINGTON -- A year ago, the American Council on Education’s regular survey of college and university presidents issued a warning  in the form of demographics. Fifty-eight percent of college and university presidents were 61 years old or older, according to the survey, a finding that presaged dramatic turnover in the composition of the upper ranks of higher education leadership.
Examples abound. Thirteen of the 35 public universities in the Association of American Universities have seen leadership turnover since early 2011. Three of the eight Ivy League universities will name new presidents by the end of the academic year. When the University of California system's president, Mark Yudof, steps down in August, all three California public higher education systems will have seen turnover in their top jobs in the past two academic years.
A large part of the council’s annual conference taking place here this week is looking at who will fill vacancies as they arise and how current administrators and institutional governing boards will ensure that the next generation of leaders have the aptitudes necessary to tackle the litany of challenges that await them in the top campus jobs.
In the Pipeline
According last year's survey, 73 percent of first-time college or university presidents ascended to the presidency from a senior administrative job in higher education such as vice president, dean or department head, and many here believe such jobs are still the most viable route to the presidency. According to a follow-up survey released by the council on Monday, the individuals in those jobs resemble their presidents in many respects, particularly racial diversity, but are younger and include a larger percentage of women.
Presenters at a panel here Monday said the trends when it comes to racial and ethnic minorities are less promising. Aside from chief diversity officers -- 89 percent of whom are people of color -- racial and ethnic minorities make up at most 17 percent of any given senior administrative role. Only 7 percent of provosts or chief academic officers, still the most common stepping stone to the presidency, are people of color.
“If this is the pipeline we’re going to look at, then in 10 years the numbers are going to be absolutely abysmal,” said Jorge G. Gonzalez, vice president of academic affairs and dean of the college at Occidental College, an ACE Fellow and panel member. As a Hispanic provost, Gonzalez is a rarity. According to the survey, only 0.9 percent of provosts are Hispanic.
Even when ethnic and racial minorities reach the ranks of senior administration, presenters said barriers prevent them from becoming presidents.
“According to the data, a greater share of minority chief academic officers desired the presidency at higher rates than non-minority CAOs – they tend to want to be president more often – but don’t become a president more often,” said Bryan J. Cook, director of the Center for Policy Analysis at ACE, during the panel.
Panel presenters and audience members in Monday’s discussion about the presidential pipeline threw out a variety of factors that minority candidates might face in rising through the ranks, including explicit or subconscious racism from major donors, board members and other campus administrators that limit these candidates’ ability to have the experiences and develop the competencies necessary to be competitive for a top job. Others cited a cultural unwillingness to self-promote -- particularly among individuals of Asian and Hispanic descent.
The president of the University of Maryland at College Park, Wallace Loh, who is of Asian descent and was raised in Peru, relayed a story about how, on his third day on the job, he asked for help from a roomful of board members and donors, which did not go well. "I now stride into a room brimming with self-confidence pretending to know everything," he joked.
While the data on racial and ethnic minorities were a cause for concern for the panel, the data looked better for women hoping to rise to the presidency.
Women make up 43 percent of senior administrators at four-year institutions, according to the survey, compared with 22 percent of presidents. In every senior administrative role except chief diversity officer, they occupy a larger percentage of jobs than they did in 2008.
Based on that data, it seems likely that women are better positioned to ascend to the presidency than ever before.
At the same time, institutions seem more reluctant to pull from the administrative ranks. Boards are increasingly likely to look outside university administration to find a new president. Between 2007 and 2012, the percentage of presidents whose previous job was outside academe grew from 17 percent to 23 percent.
High-profile recent examples of institutions looking outside academe for a president include the former Ford Motor Company executive Allan D. Gilmour, who became president of Wayne State University in 2011, and the former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, who became president of Purdue University in January.
There are also questions about whether administrators even want the job of president and whether the traditional stepping stones are the best preparation for the role. As the responsibilities of the president and provost have diverged over the past few decades – with presidents becoming more responsible for external relations, leaving campus management to provosts – provosts have expressed growing reluctance of ascending to the top job.
This weekend also saw the release of a report  by Witt/Kieffer, an executive recruiting firm, exploring the leadership qualities of college and university presidents as compared to leaders in the corporate world.
Rather than evaluate administrators based on their experiences, the firm teamed with Hogan Assessment Systems and tested 100 campus leaders -- presidents, chancellors, vice presidents, provosts, associate provosts, deans and chief information officers -- on a variety of personality characteristics designed to evaluate people’s strengths, how they behave when stressed and what motivates them.
The firm has recently begun using a variety of metrics to evaluate potential job candidates in higher education. Lucy Apthorp Leske, vice president, partner and co-director of the firm’s education and not-for-profit practice, said the tests are designed to evaluate competencies that are often missed in experiential interviews -- reference checks -- that are the traditional method of evaluating job candidates.
The study found that higher education administrators have personality characteristics similar to their corporate counterparts on a number of levels, particularly high levels of ambition.
The differences are also instructive. Higher education administrators were much less likely to be motivated by money, profits and pleasure than their corporate counterparts were, and much more likely to be motivated by wanting to help others and contribute to society, and by a desire for self-expression. Higher education administrators showed a higher level of “interpersonal sensitivity” -- tact, perceptiveness and ability to maintain relationships -- than their corporate counterparts, as well as less propensity to take risks when under stress.
Witt/Kieffer officials posited that the survey raises questions about the ability of corporate leaders to be successful in higher education.
“Another interesting wrinkle within this report is the question of whether corporate leaders can adapt to positions within academia,” wrote John Thornburgh, Witt/Kieffer senior vice president and co-leader of the higher education practice, in a news release. “Many colleges and universities are looking for nontraditional candidates for leadership jobs, often from the corporate world. But are there inherent personality tendencies in some corporate leaders that may make this transition into academia difficult?”