AAC&U News, October 2018
Facts & Figures

A Snapshot of the Private College Presidency

The Independent College Presidency, a new report from the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC), provides a snapshot of the career path, work life, frustrations, and beliefs of presidents at private colleges and universities. The report is based on data from the American Council on Education’s 2016 American College President Study, which included responses from 1,546 presidents across public and private, two-year and four-year institutions. According to responses from 423 presidents of CIC member institutions (which includes small or mid-size independent colleges and universities), presidents tend to be white, male, over sixty-one years old, and married. They spend most of their time fundraising or budgeting, and they feel frustrated by a continuous lack of money. They are also increasingly concerned about promoting gender and racial diversity in their official campus statements and hiring practices. Troublingly, more than one-fifth of CIC presidents plan on leaving their position within the next two years. 

Who Are the Presidents?

  • Most presidents of independent institutions are white (89 percent), male (70 percent), married (85 percent), and nearing retirement age (61.4 years old on average). Just over 80 percent have a doctoral degree, and they are more likely to be liberal than conservative (48 and 27 percent, respectively).
  • Thirty percent of CIC member presidents are female, and just 11 percent of presidents identified “as other than white or as Hispanic or Latino/a,” increasing from 5 percent in 2011 (see figs. 1 and 2).
  • The authors of the report worry that institutions may find it difficult to find enough qualified candidates to fill presidential vacancies in the future. More than one-fifth (22 percent) of CIC member presidents expect “to leave his or her current position in the next year or two, which is an increase of 10 percentage points from the previous 2011 survey,” the report says. “The age of CIC presidents has increased fairly steadily since 1986, and nearly half plan to step down from the presidency within the next five years.”

Figure 1.

Facts  Figures October 2018_1.JPG

Figure 2.

Facts  Figures October 2018_2.JPG

What Is the Pathway to the Presidency?

  • Just 20 percent of CIC member presidents were promoted from a position within their own institution. Many were provosts or chief academic officers (26 percent), nonacademic administrators (22 percent), president at a different institution (19 percent), or were not employed within higher education (17 percent). Just 2 percent were promoted from a position as a faculty member or department chair.
  • Women presidents (35 percent) were more likely than men (21 percent) to follow what the report calls a “traditional path” to presidency from a chief academic officer position.
  • On average, presidents worked full-time as an administrator for thirteen years before assuming the presidency.

What Do Presidents Do?

  • The presidents say they spend the most time on fundraising (80 percent), followed by budgeting and financial management (69 percent), managing their senior-level team (49 percent), governing board relations (44 percent), and enrollment management (41 percent).
  • Outside of their direct presidential duties, presidents write about higher education issues (39 percent), teach a course themselves (14 percent), team teach a course (13 percent), write scholarly articles (11 percent), or conduct disciplinary research (8 percent). However, nearly half of presidents (47 percent) say they do none of these activities.  
  • Being a president in today’s economy is a tough job, with 66 percent saying they are frustrated that their institution never has enough money. More than a third of presidents “believed they did not obtain a full and accurate disclosure of the institution’s financial condition” during the search and hiring process for their position.
  • Presidents also say they’re frustrated by a lack of time to think/reflect (47 percent), faculty resistance to change (44 percent), or problems inherited from the previous leadership (35 percent).

Where Does a President Find Support?

  • CIC member presidents identify the provost of their institution as being the most likely person on campus to “support the institutional mission” (59 percent), followed by the development and fundraising office (55 percent) and the staff in their own presidential office (46 percent). More than two-thirds (67 percent) of presidents say that students are the least understanding of institutional challenges, followed by faculty (63 percent) and athletics (31 percent).
  • Among audiences outside the institution, presidents say that their trustees (67 percent), alumni (58 percent), and presidents from other institutions (29 percent) understand their institutional mission the most. However, presidents say that state legislators (39 percent), federal agencies (36 percent), and the media (36 percent) are the most likely “to misunderstand the challenges facing their institutions.”
  • Presidents at private institutions are much less likely than presidents at public institutions to see their state’s political climate as hostile toward higher education (see fig. 3).

Figure 3.

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What Do Presidents Think About Diversity?

  • In 2016, 62 percent of the presidents thought that their institution’s racial climate was a higher priority than it was three years earlier.
  • According to the report, presidents think it is “very important” or “important” for the institution to “make clear in public statements that the status” of women (82 percent) or people of color (92 percent) on campus is a high priority. Most also agree their institution should “ensure periodic review of institutional policies” to eliminate gender bias (86 percent) or racial bias (95 percent).
  • When hiring, more than eighty percent of presidents think they should encourage faculty searches that include a “significant amount” of female or diverse candidates.

Unless otherwise cited, the facts and figures in this article are included with permission from the Council of Independent Colleges, The Independent College Presidency (Washington, DC: Council of Independent Colleges, 2018).

About AAC&U News

AAC&U News is written and edited by Ben Dedman. If you have questions or comments about the newsletter's contents, please e-mail dedman@aacu.org.

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