Leadership & Governance

Behind a Stagnant Portrait of College Leaders, an Opening for Change

College presidents remain overwhelmingly white and male, but more than half say they plan to step down in five years

June 20, 2017

The typical college president is a 62-year-old white man with a Ph.D. who thinks his faculty just don’t get it and that his college never has enough money. It’s little wonder that he’s ready to get out of there.

Arizona State U.
Qualified Latino candidates are better represented in areas like student affairs than among sitting presidents and provosts, the posts favored in presidential searches, says Maria Harper-Marinick, chancellor of the Maricopa Community College District. "It would be great to have more Latinos in the provost position."

The 2017 edition of the American College President Study, which is produced every five years by the American Council on Education, arrives today with another slow-evolving snapshot of the demographics of higher-education leadership. The study portends a changing of the guard for the sector and questions whether the future of higher education will be significantly more inclusive than the old boys’ club that has historically held sway.

"I do believe that the needle is slowly moving in the right direction," says Molly Corbett Broad, the council’s president and its first female leader.

The survey, conducted in 2016, includes responses from 1,546 college leaders across the nation, who were overwhelmingly white (83 percent) and male (70 percent). In the long view of higher-education diversity efforts, however, these numbers represent progress. Minorities constitute 17 percent of college presidents, up from 13 percent in 2011.

The percentage of minorities in college presidencies has more than doubled since 1986, when the council released its first study.

The table is set for the stagnant demographics of the college presidency to alter dramatically in the coming years. More than half of the survey’s respondents said they planned to leave their current post in five years or less.

The council’s study comes at a time when higher education and its leaders appear increasingly under siege. Critics of perceived political bias and intolerance on college campuses have been emboldened in recent years by debates over free speech and political correctness. At the same time, divestment from public colleges and universities is an ever more-accepted status quo.

How the Race and Gender of College Presidents Has Changed Over a Decade

Men

Race or ethnicity201620112006
African American 7.6% 5.3% 5.3%
Asian American 2.6% 1.7% 0.9%
White 83.1% 88.6% 88.0%
Hispanic 4.4% 3.2% 3.8%
American Indian 0.3% 0.7% 0.5%
Middle Eastern 0.8% - -
Multiple Races* 1.3% 0.5% 1.5%

Women

Race or ethnicity201620112006
African American 9.0% 7.7% 8.1%
Asian American 1.8% 1.2% 1.0%
White 83.1% 83.0% 81.1%
Hispanic 2.9% 5.6% 6.7%
American Indian 1.3% 0.9% 1.5%
Middle Eastern 0.2% - -
Multiple Races* 1.8% 1.6% 1.7%

Source: American College President Study 2017

Asked about their biggest frustrations, 61 percent ranked never having enough money as high on the list.

Those tensions showed up in the study, where more than two in five college leaders described the political climate in their states as hostile toward higher education.

Besieged with financial challenges, most college presidents do not think that professors truly understand what their colleges are up against. Fifty-seven percent of respondents said that, among all internal constituent groups, faculty were among the three groups who least understood the institution’s challenges, trailing only students at 64 percent. Far fewer respondents — 26 percent — said athletics was among the most uninformed groups.

Among external groups, college leaders ranked state lawmakers, the governor’s office, and the news media as the three constituencies that least understood colleges’ challenges.

Years in Office

It is conventional wisdom in higher education that the challenges of the college presidency, which include increasing political pressure and financial strain, are such that people simply get ground out of these jobs faster than they once did. The council’s survey lends some credence to this notion, showing that on average, college presidents had served in their current positions for 6.5 years, down from 7 years in 2011 and 8.5 in 2006.

But, despite what is commonly reported, the data do not give a clear picture of whether presidential tenures are actually getting shorter. All the numbers definitively show is how long the current class of presidents have been in their current jobs. Even so, some see hints of tougher times behind the declining tenure number.

"That it has shortened does suggest a level of volatility that may not have been previously present," says Jonathan S. Gagliardi, a co-author of the study and associate director of the Center for Policy Research and Strategy at the American Council on Education.

Fewer Hispanic Presidents

Among all minority groups, only Hispanic college leaders have declined in total representation over the past decade.

Hispanic leaders made up 3.9 percent of college presidents in 2016, down from 4.5 percent in 2006. The decline in Hispanic college presidents comes even as the nation’s Latino population surges and more programs are being developed to mentor minority college leaders.

Maria Harper-Marinick, chancellor of the Maricopa Community College District, sees the challenges for Latino leaders as interwoven with the expectations of search committees and college trustees. Sitting presidents and college provosts continue to be the favored candidates in presidential searches, but qualified Latino candidates are more represented in other administrative areas, such as student affairs, Ms. Harper-Marinick says.

"It would be great to have more Latinos in the provost position," says Ms. Harper-Marinick, who, in 1982, came to the United States from the Dominican Republic as a Fulbright scholar.

"But until that capacity is built, broadening the scope of the search to be mindful that leadership happens in different places in the organization, not just in the academic unit — that would be helpful."

In recent years, a few organizations have emerged with a focus on grooming Latino academics for leadership in higher education. The University of Michigan’s National Forum on Higher Education for the Public Good, for example, has teamed up with the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education to form the New Leadership Academy, which helps to prepare early-career administrators for positions that would make them viable candidates for presidencies.

Challenges for Women

The declining number of Hispanic presidents is driven largely by decreases among women, whose representation fell from about 7 percent to 3 percent over a 10-year period.

Noe Ortega, managing director of the New Leadership Academy, says that leadership opportunities for Hispanic women are "hemorrhaging at public colleges and universities, and we must make that a priority."

Maricopa is expected to begin searches to fill presidencies at four of its 10 colleges in the coming months. One of those campuses, Glendale Community College, is now under the interim leadership of Teresa Leyba Ruiz, a former vice president for student affairs at Glendale, who says she plans to vie for the permanent presidency.

“No matter what, there's still never a 50-50 split in raising a family and the household duties. It never is.”

Ms. Leyba Ruiz says she was surprised and disappointed to see the number of Hispanic women in college presidencies declining, given the emphasis that a number of organizations have placed upon it. But women, Latina or not, often balance familial obligations that their male counterparts do not, Ms. Leyba Ruiz says.

"No matter what, there’s still never a 50-50 split in raising a family and the household duties," says Ms. Leyba Ruiz, a Latina born in Seattle. "It never is. My husband is a fire chief, so he’s an executive in his own right. Yet still, who does the majority of the cooking?"

The council’s survey hints at these dynamics. Nearly one in three women, for example, said that they had altered their careers to care for a dependent spouse, partner or parent. Only one in six men said the same.

Woman presidents, three quarters of whom are married, are less likely to have a spouse than male college leaders, 90 percent of whom are married. By roughly the same margins, woman presidents are also less likely to have children than men.

Dennis M. Barden, a senior partner with Witt/Kieffer, an executive search firm, says that he has seen a lot of qualified women take a pass on leadership positions.

"There is no question that there is a significant amount of self-selection that goes on at the leadership level, no matter who you are," he says. "And it’s pretty clear that women opt out more than men. It certainly is anecdotally my experience."

Over all, women constitute 30 percent of college presidents.

The numbers need improvement, Mr. Barden says, but trustees are not resistant to women and minority candidates in the way they once were.

"It was not enormously unusual, early in my career — almost 20 years ago — for this to be a nudge-and-wink thing," he says, "where people felt the need to entertain diverse candidates, but ultimately you realized they didn’t have any intention whatsoever of hiring one of them. But I just don’t feel that way anymore."

Waded Cruzado, president of Montana State University and a native of Puerto Rico, had her own misgivings about leading a land-grant college in a less-than-diverse state.

She once told a search consultant, "I don’t look like, I don’t sound like anybody in Montana!"

"Yet almost right away I felt it was the right decision, starting with the woman regent who said to the search committee, ‘I’m tired of people saying that there will never be a woman university president in Montana,’" Ms. Cruzado, who was traveling Monday, wrote in an email to The Chronicle.

If the demographics of the college presidency are to change, Ms. Cruzado says, it is important for women in higher education to recognize their own skills and to advocate for themselves.

"Women, by nature, tend to second-guess their talents and their experience," she wrote, "often thinking, ‘I’m not ready yet.’ But is that true? It is vitally important for women to examine themselves ruthlessly and then to forge ahead with courage and optimism."

Correction (6/20/17, 8:44 a.m.): This article originally gave the wrong number of presidents responding to the survey. It was sent to more than 3,600 college leaders, of whom 1,546 responded. The article has been updated to correct the error.

Jack Stripling covers college leadership, particularly presidents and governing boards. Follow him on Twitter @jackstripling, or email him at jack.stripling@chronicle.com.