Posted on August 16, 2018
With the average tenure of college and university presidents dropping to 6.5 yearsi and the scope of challenges faced by leaders in higher education expanding, the college presidency has been described by some as “the toughest job in the nation.”ii
No longer viewed primarily as academic and intellectual thought leaders, today’s college presidents are called upon to serve as multidimensional CEOs of complex organizations. They are often navigating between governing boards with scant shared governance experience, who insist on rapid change, and change-resistant faculty, who express anxiety over the “corporatization of higher education.”
At the national level, talk of higher education as a public good, of investing in society through education, and, in the case of land-grant institutions, of “promoting the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life,”iii has been replaced by talk of a return on investment—tuition in exchange for jobs. Consequently, presidents must communicate frequent messages about the added-value of attending their institutions to political leaders and an increasingly skeptical public, concerned about the costs of higher education, student debt burdens, and the employability of graduates.
Yet, finding the reflective time and space to reach a multiplicity of audiences and convince them that colleges and universities are the most powerful institutional forces in catalyzing individual and societal transformation can be thwarted by the day-to-day demands of the job. Student protests around divestment from fossil fuels, Black Lives Matter, DACA, and other movements related to racial and social justice occupy a growing portion of a president’s time. Political polarization on college campuses is greater than it has been in more than half a century,iv and a single tweet, blog, or Instagram post can lead to a campus crisis that reaches the press before it ever lands in the president’s office. Safety issues related to sexual assault and harassment, the changing nature of NCAA rules and regulations amidst high-profile athletics scandals, and the burgeoning financial and personnel resources necessary to accommodate the physical and mental-health needs of students present additional challenges when presidents are attempting to safeguard the well-being of all members of the community and protect the institution from reputational and compliance risks.
It should come as no surprise, however, that when current presidents are asked about the top uses of their time, budget and financial management, alongside fundraising, are cited. Indeed, being a financial strategist is identified as the most important skill a leader can bring to a college or university presidency.v Student aid has failed to keep pace with rising tuition, and the disinvestment in public education has led to state colleges and universities needing to do more with less, resulting in more contingent faculty, larger classes, and widening gaps between publics and privates in spending per student. Private colleges and universities, especially in geographic regions with declining enrollment trends, are now facing competition for students from a broader range of institutions. Remaining competitive requires recruiting and retaining excellent faculty and staff, as well as addressing the costs of deferred maintenance and infrastructure issues. Moreover, during a period of changing demographics in higher education, equity imperatives mandate destabilizing persistent economic and cultural barriers by investing in student-success strategies that focus on rising numbers of returning adults, veterans, first-generation college students, students of color, and other underserved populations.
Thus, identifying alternative sources of revenue and engaging in effective capital and comprehensive fundraising have become more critical than ever. However, encouraging alumni giving has taken a complicated turn. Many presidents are asked to defend campus diversity goals; explain the latest rankings in U.S. News and World Report as the sole metric for whether graduates should contribute to their alma mater; and react to media-fueled depictions of “the snowflake generation of students,” who are perceived as curtailing free-speech by shouting down conservative speakers while simultaneously seeking safe spaces and trigger warnings.
A brief glimpse into the world of the college and university president reveals the significance of this groundbreaking leadership series, created by executive editors Virginia Wesleyan College President Scott D. Miller and Marylouise Fennell, Senior Counsel at the Council of Independent Colleges, and past President Carlow University. The chapters included in the 2018-2019 edition are written by extraordinary leaders in higher education, whose insights and experience are bound to serve as a valuable resource for their presidential colleagues. Together, the authors point the way for college and university presidents to lead meaningful and lasting change in striving toward their shared objectives of fulfilling the promise of American higher education.
i EAB Daily Briefing, 5 Fast Facts About Today’s College Presidents, https://www.eab.com/daily-briefing/2017/08/28/5-fast-facts-about-todays-college-presidents, August 28, 2017.
ii Thomason, Andy. “Is College President the Toughest Job in the Nation?” The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 1, 2018.
iii The Land-Grant Tradition—APLU, www.aplu.org/library/the-land-grant-tradition/file, Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, Washington, DC, 2012.
iv Arriaga, Alex. “Political Division Soars on Campus, Survey Finds.” https://www.chronicle.com/blogs/ticker/political-division-soars-on-campus-survey-finds/118061, May 1, 2017.
v Seltzer, Rick. “The Slowly Diversifying Presidency,” Inside Higher Ed, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/06/20/college-presidents-diversifying-slowly-and-growing-older-study-finds, June 20, 2017.