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Why college presidents are becoming more like corporate CEOs

U-Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan is pictured on campus in this 2015 photo. (Andrew Shurtleff/Daily Progress via AP)
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As the University of Virginia begins its search to replace President Teresa A. Sullivan — who announced in January that she’s stepping down next year — it’s likely to find a very different pool of candidates than when the university hired her seven years ago.

The pathway to the top job on campuses is undergoing its biggest transformation in decades, according to research on the college presidency I recently published with Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities and Deloitte’s Center for Higher Education Excellence.

A century ago, the college presidency was often described as “a club,” as those in the position came largely from the faculty ranks and were from a similar pedigree. In the 1970s, as financial pressures grew on higher education, presidents were hired for their administrative experience. These days the president is expected to be a multidimensional leader able to navigate a range of challenges from technology to sexual assault as well as keep up with the changing nature of learning and emerging academic disciplines.

Part of our study included an analysis of the backgrounds of more than 800 incumbent presidents. We found that few college leaders arrive at their jobs in the same way, and a follow-up survey of several hundred revealed that few of them agree on the issues that face their campuses or their successors.

What was perhaps most worrisome in our research is the growing divide between presidents and students. Presidents ranked student life and student engagement near the bottom of a list of responsibilities they felt confident in overseeing. The lack of confidence is perhaps a reflection of the importance of students in a president’s daily life. When we asked presidents about their top responsibilities, just 2 percent ranked student life and engagement among their top three. Only athletics ranked lower.

“Presidents sometimes are tone-deaf to the needs of students,” one president told us in follow-up interviews. “Some don’t like spending time with them, and they rely on their senior team to tell them what’s going on.”

It’s no wonder then that so many high-profile dismissals of presidents in recent years have come as a result of student issues, including those at the University of Missouri, Baylor University, and Mount St. Mary’s in Maryland.

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Presidents often spend as much time off campus as they do on, as fundraising becomes an ever more important part of their job. We found in our research that as presidents have become focused on external issues, the No. 2 person on campus, the provost, has become more internally focused. That has resulted in provosts hired for skills that complement the president rather than someone groomed to replace the president.

That’s a significant shift given the most popular path to the president’s job often comes through the provost’s office. (Sullivan, for instance, was provost at the University of Michigan before she came to U-Va.) Now there is evidence that provosts might not want the top job, nor do they always have the broad set of skills necessary for the demands of the modern presidency.

Indeed, our review of career ladders of presidents found that deans of individual schools within universities are increasingly moving right into the presidency and bypassing the provost’s office altogether. This was particularly the case at small colleges (under 5,000 students), where leading an entire campus is similar to a dean’s job at a large university.

But that fast track from dean to president is not followed by everyone. We found, for example, that three times as many men as women went right to the presidency from the dean’s office.

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Unconventional pathways to the presidency might become even more common in the future. Presidents new to the job told us that they expect their successors to come with more of a business background, and in some cases, outside of academia. Colleges are also likely to be looking for presidents more often as presidents aim to lead multiple institutions in their career (the average tenure in the job is now about seven years).

“Presidents approach their job with the expectation that they’ll be judged on what they can finish,” a president of a private university told us.

That worries some longtime presidents who fear that there is too much of an emphasis on short-term gains by presidents looking to burnish their reputation for their next job and governing boards looking to fix immediate problems. That focus on the short-term almost led Sullivan to lose her job in 2012, when leaders of the Board of Visitors ousted her for not moving fast enough to position the university for the future (only to have the board reverse that action a couple weeks later).

While the president’s office is never a stop on the campus tour for prospective students, who sits in that office has an enormous impact on the life of an institution. The pressure on college presidents is likely only to grow in the future given the range of challenges now facing higher education. Finding good leaders to confront those issues will require colleges and universities to understand how the role is evolving and how the pathways to the top job are shifting.