Leadership & Governance

Why Do Few Provosts Want to Be Presidents? Survey Suggests Some Answers

July 20, 2010

Provosts at private colleges like their jobs, but they don't stay in them long, and few are interested in becoming presidents, according to a report scheduled for release on Tuesday by the Council of Independent Colleges.

The report, which was based on a 2008 survey, said fewer than one in four chief academic officers at small and midsize private colleges planned to seek a presidency. And while 96 percent of respondents reported high levels of job satisfaction, they have served an average of only 4.3 years in their current positions, about half the typical tenure of college presidents.

The findings build on growing worries about the pipeline to the presidency. As baby-boomer presidents edge closer to retirement, provosts are usually the most experienced and desirable candidates to replace them.

"All but the most prestigious institutions" are facing a shrinking talent pool of potential presidents, said Richard Ekman, the council's president.

The report, which is available on the council's Web site, was based on data from a survey conducted by the American Council on Education. Responses from 358 chief academic officers, representing more than half of the independent-college group's membership, were compared with those from other sectors of higher education.

The presidential ambitions of provosts hailing from the council's member colleges lagged behind their peers (the national average is 30 percent). The top reason cited by those not interested in becoming a president was the unappealing nature of presidents' work (74 percent), followed by not wanting to live "in a fishbowl" (26 percent), nearing retirement (26 percent), and the time demands presidents face (25 percent).

Those findings are troubling, the report's authors said, particularly given the close working relationship between provosts and presidents at relatively small private colleges.

"You would think that provosts would see the joy of the presidency," Mr. Ekman said. "It's puzzling."

Furthermore, the average job stint for college presidents is growing, while that of provosts is shrinking. The role provosts often play as budget hawks could be partially to blame.

"It's possible that the provosts are being the fall guys," Mr. Ekman said.

Challenging Relationship With Professors

In addition to liking their work, the provosts in the survey were more likely than their peers in other sectors of higher education to have close connections with professors and to teach a course.

But those faculty ties have not created an adversarial relationship with presidents. In fact, provosts at small private colleges said their best working relationship is with their president and their most challenging is with faculty members. A significant number also reported difficulties working with chief financial officers and other vice presidents.

The council will seek to improve the provost-CFO relationship by inviting CFOs to an annual meeting for provosts. It is also focusing on various leadership-training opportunities for provosts, among whom fewer than 30 percent had received any such training before arriving on the job.

Provosts who intended to seek presidencies identified several areas where they said they needed further preparation. Topping the list was fund raising (69 percent), relations with trustees (42 percent), and financial management (32 percent).

Harold V. Hartley III, a co-author of the report, said provosts at small private colleges were less engaged in fund raising than those at most other types of colleges, "so they're not getting that experience."

One advantage for the group of provosts in the survey is that they are about three years younger than their provost peers elsewhere in higher education. But with an average age of 57, they remain only a decade or so from retirement and are only three years younger than presidents of small private colleges.

In addition, 62 percent of provosts at small private colleges are men, about the same percentage as at other colleges. But provosts in the study are more likely to be white—91 percent versus 85 percent. That low number, however, is changing. The study found that 13 percent of provosts at small private colleges who have served for less than a year identified themselves as people of color, more than double the proportion who have served for more than 10 years.