As Colleges Evolve, So Must Their Presidents

Tim Foley for The Chronicle

March 04, 2013

Soon after he started as chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in 2008, H. Holden Thorp stopped by The Chronicle to meet with several editors and reporters. It was the first time I had met him, and his youth took me by surprise.

Thorp was 43 at the time, and I asked him whether his age was an advantage or a detriment. He thought it was an advantage because he could imagine leading the Chapel Hill campus for 20-plus years, an eternity in a job where the average college president serves just seven years.

Last fall, Thorp abruptly announced that he would step down at the end of the spring semester, a casualty of a series of controversies that plagued his administration over the previous two years. "They wore me down," he said.

So much for the opportunity to patiently enact changes over decades. Thorp hadn't lasted five years.

He is not alone in getting out. Notwithstanding their paychecks, the past few years have not been kind to college presidents and chancellors, as several high-profile leaders have either resigned or left for other gigs: Robert N. Shelton, Biddy Martin, Michael Hogan, Robert Holub, Richard W. Lariviere, the list goes on. (Thorp was recently named provost at Washington University in St. Louis.) Many on that roster were at large public universities, but the battle scars are just as deep at tuition-dependent private colleges struggling with the effects of a bad economy.

Demographic trends tell us that we're about to enter a period of profound change in the corner office on campuses. The average age of college presidents is 61, according to a survey by the American Council on Education. Nearly six in 10 presidents are 61 or older, a proportion that has grown in recent years.

This generation of higher-education leaders is frequently characterized as "corporate fund raisers." Now, as these baby boomers retire and a new generation replaces them, what will characterize the next leaders? I have put this question to sitting presidents, faculty members, scholars of the presidency, and search consultants. What they agree on is that the attributes of future presidents will be more specific to individual institutions, as tomorrow's leaders confront challenges that are unique to their sector, state, region, or mission. One description won't fit all.

Let's start with a characteristic that has almost immediately disqualified many candidates in the past: lack of an academic pedigree. Today nearly one-third of college presidents have never been faculty members, and 20 percent come from outside of academe. Those proportions are rising and will continue to rise. With provosts increasingly saying they don't want to be presidents, search committees will have little choice but to consider candidates from nontraditional backgrounds.

But just because a candidate doesn't hail from academe doesn't mean he or she is an intellectual lightweight or can't adjust to the norms of the academy. "Not every intellectual ends up in a traditional faculty role," says Shelly Weiss Storbeck, managing partner of Storbeck/Pimentel & Associates, a search firm. "You can have intellectual acumen and not be a scholarly academic."

Still, it's likely that a vocal contingent of faculty members on many campuses will continue to refuse to accept a president who has never compiled a syllabus or been through the tenure process. One of their arguments is that as pressure mounts to use technology to gain efficiencies in teaching, future presidents should be well versed in the latest pedagogical research. "The heart of the institution is teaching and learning," says Bob Samuels, president of the University Council-American Federation of Teachers, "yet the people representing the university don't have any knowledge of teaching."

Even if presidents do arrive with such knowledge, it is doubtful they have been in a classroom on a regular basis in recent years. In the ACE survey, presidents report spending most of their time on fund raising, budgeting, community relations, and planning. If rethinking how colleges deliver courses offers the biggest opportunity to improve learning and save money, then presidents will need to spend much more time on academic issues. A simple way to better connect leaders to the classroom is to shrink the amount of time it takes traditional academics to become presidents, by reducing the number and length of career stops they need to make along the way.

Academe is in a period of profound change, as a combination of financial, political, demographic, and technological forces reshapes institutions. A crucial trait for future presidents is that they have experience in leading substantial change, whether in academe or outside, says T. Mills Kelly, an associate professor of history at George Mason University. "We're always so focused on getting someone with the right kinds of experiences," he says. "But if they haven't had to deal with massive change in their career, then all we're doing is hiring someone to ideally position us for 1995."

Running a campus is, of course, much more than just about managing a large, complex organization. This generation of college leaders has failed to build a narrative that explains the wider purpose of higher education, argues Mitchell Stevens, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University. "There is a real dearth in large thinking in the sector," he says. "We don't have presidents who are narrators."

To help weave that narrative, and to avoid the controversies that have engulfed many recent presidents, leaders should spend more time on campus than they do now. The job of president has largely turned into one focused on external constituencies, while the provost is now seen more as the day-to-day manager of the academic side of the house, especially on larger campuses. But in relinquishing some of their on-campus duties by spending time off campus (as several observers of the presidency have noted), college leaders find it difficult to grow into the fabric of a place, which often leads to strained relations. Instead of traveling to just one more conference or meeting with alumni in yet another city, they are likely to find a few more days or weeks on campus valuable in engaging with faculty members and students, and in personally leading the change they are publicly advocating.

As Storbeck, the search consultant, explains it, presidencies speed by. New leaders go on "listening tours" the first year, develop a strategic plan the second year, and then in a year or two find themselves amid five-year fund-raising campaigns that put them on the road 150 days of the year. Longer presidencies might help on this front, so that leaders can outlast a campaign and take advantage of the time before the next one to focus on positioning the institution for the future.

Perhaps it is asking too much for presidents to be throwbacks to previous generations, when they were integrated into the fabric of their institutions and returned to the faculty ranks at the end of their presidential tenures. Many presidents today complain that their faculty members are out of touch with reality, but institutional leaders often seem no less disconnected. Look at recent surveys that show presidents and the public far apart on assessing the value of a college degree for money spent.

If tomorrow's presidents focused more of their energy on what's happening on their own campuses, they might better tell the narrative of the institution­­—and of higher education as a whole. And they might well find themselves more comfortable in place at a particular institution, and not being in effect visitors on their own campuses. If so, maybe we'll see more Holden Thorps in the future­—but with a better chance of a 20-year presidency.

Jeffrey Selingo is editor at large of The Chronicle and author of the forthcoming book College (Un) Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students (New Harvest/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013).