Are My Worries My Successor’s Priorities?

Report Highlights Challenges Facing Next Generation of Higher Education Leaders

The Council of Independent Colleges (CIC), a Washington-based private college presidents association serving more than 700 colleges, universities, and organizations, recently released an important report on what private college presidents are thinking.

Chris Quintana described its implications in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “What’s on the Mind of the Private-College President? 3 Insights From a New Report.” He placed them against the backdrop of seismic shifts likely to affect higher education.

Finances, Fundraising Dominate College Presidents’ Time

CIC analyzed data from a 2016 American Council on Education (ACE) report on the private college presidency. CIC found that, on average, these presidents are white males whose professional time is dominated by finances and fundraising.

They are often unprepared for some aspects of the job, especially in areas like how to plan for technology and assess student learning.

As Mr. Quintana noted, the average age of private college presidents is 61 and about half of the presidents in the broad middle group of small- and mid-size colleges intend to leave their current jobs, many of them likely to retire.

These findings are important because they point to two very interesting conclusions:

  • First, the surveyed presidents understand that the world is changing faster than the campus climate that makes change possible.
  • Second, presidents recognize that the leaders American colleges and universities — they themselves — must adapt in numerous ways to ensure the continued sustainability of their institutions.

Diversity, Representation, and Hostile Climate are Priorities

Mr. Quintana highlights three main take-aways from the CIC report: race, representation, and a hostile political climate.

There is growing concern among college leaders about race and diversity within the leadership ranks — administration and faculty — of their own institutions.

He suggests that some fairly striking improvements have been made recently. For example, in 1986, only 17 percent of the presidents were women, but by 2016 that number had increased to 30 percent. In addition, “roughly two-thirds of the leaders reported that their institutions had programs to recruit either women or minorities to faculty positions, and about 40 percent reported efforts to recruit both groups.”

The second take-away is that private higher education must work hard to prepare the next generation of leadership given the graying of the presidency described in the report.

Drew University’s president, MaryAnn Baenninger notes that “we still are of a generation that grew up in a different time.” She speculates that new, younger leadership might bring to bear new ideas, approaches and models that will benefit the institutions that they serve. Ms. Baenninger reports that new challenges in areas like communications and emergency management also change the nature of the training required.

Presidents Feel Acutely the Public Hostility Toward Higher Education

Finally, there is a pervasive feeling that American higher education is under attack. As Mr. Quintana reports “nearly 40 percent of college presidents believe their state climates are hostile toward higher education, while only half feel that their states support colleges.”

This feeling is spread about equally among state and federal officials, many of whom do not understand the challenges facing higher education. Mr. Quintana correlates these findings with a Pew Research Center finding indicating that 61 percent of Americans feel that higher education is moving in the wrong direction.

CIC President Richard Ekman summed up these findings succinctly. He suggests that his group’s previously surveys “have revealed a disconnect in how people view academe,” finding that “they tend to appreciate their local colleges while distrusting higher education as a whole.”

Ekman argues that lawmakers and the media can “lob criticisms at higher education and rile up their constituents.”

The Chronicle report demonstrated handily that there is much work ahead. It suggests that the challenge of training new leadership relates directly to the ability of colleges to evolve in tandem with the forces that will shape them in the 21stCentury.

The CIC report groups the worries of current leadership in part into concerns over diversity, the capacity to be nimble and creative, and the ability to operate in a hostile public environment.

It’s not an especially favorable climate from which to attract the next batch of leadership recruits.

But there is a hidden silver lining to the study. First, I commend CIC, drawing in part from the recent ACE study, to speak to the challenges and opportunities of leadership for the next generation of new presidents. We can learn from the lessons of our predecessors, but we must not be bound by them.

Second, the CIC report suggests that the next generation of leaders must possess distinct qualities that will prepare them for the changes ahead. And perhaps most importantly, CIC argues for cooperative thinking and deeper and more comprehensive levels of preparation as new presidents take over.

In our new book, How to Run a College: A Practical Guide for Trustees, Faculty, Administrators and Policymakers, Dr. Joey King and I make a strong argument that colleges and universities are at a pivotal moment when they must adapt using new techniques, strategies, programs and products to become more relevant and sustainable.

The CIC study adds one important caution. Higher education — whether public or private — must actively work to ready the next generation of leadership for what’s ahead. They are the decision-makers who will guide higher education along a path toward sustainability.

Let’s make certain that they are ready.

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