Making the most of expected high presidential turnover

The ACE 2007 report The American President offers some answers and raises disturbing questions.

Harvard University’s historic choice of Drew Gilpin Faust for president is the latest of several high-profile recent presidential appointments of women. Others include Ruth Simmons at Brown, Shirley Tilghman at Princeton, Mary Sue Coleman at Michigan, Amy Guttman at Penn and Susan Hockfield at MIT. Are these blips on the screen or a new era for women in leadership? The American Council on Education’s 2007 report The American College President offers some answers and raises disturbing questions. Released at the ACE annual meeting in February, this is ACE’s sixth such report, starting in 1986. It’s based on 2006 data from 2,148 college and university presidents. Changing demographics foreshadow massive presidential turnover in the next few years, according to the report. “Our hope is that this is an opportunity to create greater diversity,” said Dr. Jacqueline King, director of the ACE Center for Policy Analysis, which conducted the study. But hiring trends will have to change for those opportunities to bring more women and minorities into the presidency. Women college presidents Since 1986 the percent of presidents who are women more than doubled. Minority presidents increased 68%, mostly at schools targeted to minority students. Most gains for both groups were in the first 12 years. “It never was fast progress for minorities. For women it leveled off after the mid-90s,” King told WIHE.

Increase in Women and Minority Presidents
  1986 1998 2006
Women 9.5% 19.3% 23.0%
Minorities 8.1% 11.3%  
13.6%Despite recent high-profile appointments of Faust and others, men still lead almost as many research universities as they did eight years ago. Women leaders are most numerous at two-year schools, where 60% of students are women.


Women Presidents by School’s Top Degree
  1986 1998 2006
Doctoral 3.8% 13.2% 13.8%
Masters 10.0% 18.7% 21.5%
Bachelor's 16.1% 20.4% 23.2%
Associate 7.9% 22.4% 28.8%
Specialized 6.6% 14.8%  
16.6%Perhaps the most striking reversal has been in the leadership trends of public vs. private colleges. Twenty years ago private colleges were more than twice as likely to have women presidents. “Of course you had many more women’s colleges then than today, and more nuns as presidents,” she told WIHE. By 1998, more publicly owned colleges than private ones had women presidents, with community colleges in the forefront. Since then the gap has increased and private colleges with women leaders have plateaued. Women Presidents by Institutional Control
  1986 1998 2006
Public 6.0% 20.2% 23.9%
Private 13.9% 18.4% 17.5%

 Women presidents bring more diversity of other sorts into higher education leadership. Nearly 19% are women of color, compared to 12% of the men. More than a third of Latina presidents and nearly a third of African American presidents are women, compared to 22% of whites. Women presidents’ lifestyles are diverse: 62.6% married, 13.8% divorced, 9.9% never married (other than nuns), 5.8% never married/religious, 5.2% widowed and 2.7% with a domestic partner. Slightly over two-thirds have children, mostly grown. Men follow more of a cookie-cutter mold: Nine of ten are married, and similar numbers have children. Although more men have families, far fewer took career time out or reduced workloads because of family (10% of women, 2% of men). More than a third of the women altered career for family for five years or more, compared to just 15% of the men. Graying of the presidency On average, college presidents look much the same as 20 years ago: They’re heterosexual, middle-aged, married, white dads. Demographics of those men have changed in two significant ways, however. They’re older now and they’ve been in the same job longer. “The aging of presidents has crept up on us,” she told WIHE. Presidencies have grayed by almost a decade, from an average age of 52 back 20 years ago to age 60 today. Most of the women presidents today are below age 60 while most of the men are older. They’re the pre-boomers, whose academic careers started during the rapid expansion of the 1970s when the baby boomers got to college. They were assistant professors to the boomers. Rapid expansion brought opportunities for advancement. The best and brightest were deans in their 30s. In 1986, two of five presidents were age 50 or younger (today it’s just one in twelve, a wunderkind). Now the generation just ahead of the baby boom is getting ready to rotate out. Time in present job, a median of five years in 1986, rose in 2006 to seven years for women and men alike. The average or mean is higher, 7.7 years for women and 8.8 years for men. Recognizing that presidential turnover is disruptive, boards try to get successful presidents to stay, at least until the end of the next capital campaign. With so many 60-somethings who’ve been presidents for years, a surge of retirements is in the offing. Faculty haven’t retired in predicted numbers but presidents probably will; compared to faculty, they have more post-retirement options and fewer financial constraints. “The 24/7 kind of job that is a presidency, that’s a job you may not want to do into your 70s,” she said. Retirements should create new opportunities for leadership by women and minorities; but other trends in the report suggest higher education needs to prepare for them. Changing roles Presidents who’d been in office ten years or more described how the job had changed. They named fundraising, accountability/assessment and budget/finance as the parts of their job that had grown most in importance. They also spend more time on capital improvements and technology planning than they used to, and less on academic affairs. They’re spending more time with outsiders and less with groups on campus. When they started 57% spent most of their time with internal constituents, but only 14% do that today. Increased financial demands today have changed the nature of the job. Cuts in state funding have accompanied demands for greater accountability at public universities. Asked which con-stituencies challenged them most, leaders of public institutions listed legislators or policy makers, faculty and the state or system office. Private college presidents listed faculty, donors/benefactors and governing boards. Both lists featured the people holding the purse strings: legislators or donors, depending on type of school. Fundraising was the most frequently named activity demanding much of a president’s time, followed by budget/finance, community relations and strategic planning. As the job gets more complex, boards have become more cautious in their hiring. They emphasize previous experience: 21.4% of last year’s presidents were a president, CEO or chancellor in their previous position, up from 17.3% in 1986. Because more men are presidents already, this bias gives them an edge in the candidate pool. Apparently boards are even more cautious when it comes to choosing women. With provost/chief academic officer being the traditional rung on the ladder just below president, 39.8% of women presidents were CAOs on their last job, compared to 28.7% of men. Hiring from outside higher education is the source of 14.4% of male presidents—and only 8.6% of women. One in four recently hired college presidents is a woman, about the same as in 1998. If the rate stays the same when current presidents retire, women’s overall numbers in the presidency won’t change much from where they are today. It’s time to do something about that. Grasping the opportunity What will it take for more women and minorities to fill the presidential slots about to open? King listed a number of factors that need to converge. On the supply side, there have to be candidates who are prepared, able and willing and who know how to navigate a presidential search. This will require:

  • People in the pipeline
  • Attractive jobs, particularly in terms of improved work/life balance
  • Coaching on the presidential search and selection process, which is different from any other, which ACE leadership programs include.

On the demand side, boards and search committees need to be a bit more flexible. To limit their risk of making a bad hire, they’ve developed very long lists of criteria. “The more criteria you add, the harder it is for a broad swath of people to check off all those boxes,” she said. ACE is working to develop follow-up activities in all these areas. They’ve long had programs to expand leadership opportunities for women and minorities. Now they’re looking at a stepped-up level of activity, some of it with other organizations. They hope to see the results in five years or so, the next time they plan to repeat the study. Email Jacqueline King at:

Order The American College President for $48.95 from the ACE bookstore at

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