Women Applying for Presidency Face ‘Border Patrol’

“We’re recruiting 21st century presidents using 19th century processes”

Gains in the number of women college presidents have slowed dramatically since 2001. Most studies of women’s paths to the top are reflections from sitting presidents. What can we learn from candidates who didn’t get the job?

Chief academic officers (CAOs) are the largest single source of presidents. Dr. Diane Dean, assistant professor of higher education administration at Illinois State University, used a national study of women CAOs to analyze their presidential search experiences. She spoke at the AERA meeting in Chicago in April.

Dean described their experience as “facing the border patrol,” a series of barriers and hazards: “We’re recruiting 21st-century presidents using 19th-century processes.”

Rites of passage include entry into the search process, initial interviews, the finalist phase and finally the offer and negotiation. At each hurdle, fewer women advance.

 Surveys went to all 657 women CAOs at 2-year, 4-year and graduate not-for-profit, non-specialized colleges and universities in the United States listed in the 2002 Higher Education Directory , and 57% responded.

Entering the search

More than a third of the women responding had entered at least one presidential search. Of those, more than half had been in multiple searches, for a total of 134 of the candidates participating in 313 searches.

Number of Presidential Searches

Searches % of candidates
1 45%
2 24%
3 10%
4-5 8%
6-7 7%
9-15 6%

Presidential vacancies had come to their attention in a variety of ways: search consultants, published announcements, informal networks, internal openings, mentors and others. A woman might have listed more than one information source, especially if she was in multiple searches.

Public and private institutions spread the word very differently. Public announcements were crucial at public universities and community colleges. They played only a small role at private colleges, where informal networks were much more important.

How they learned of openings

  Public Private
Published announcements 56% 15%
Search Consultants 54% 54%
Informal Networks 23% 47%
Mentors 16% 11%


Nominations, direct applications and invitations by search consultants were three of the ways women became candidates. Again, a marked contrast emerged between public and private. Of those who became candidates, 56% applied directly for public presidencies and only 15% for private ones. In contrast, 64% entered private college searches through nominations and 44% for public ones.

Semifinalists, finalists and offers

Three-fourths of the candidates became semifinalists for at least one presidency. The majority of semifinalists went on to become finalists. Altogether 68 of the women in the study reached finalist levels, many of them more than once, in a total of 137 searches. What helped the finalists?

  • encouragement by a mentor
  • increasing visibility by making new contacts
  • telling well-placed colleagues their hopes
  • using search firms
  • soliciting nominations

Of the 68 who became finalists, 8 received offers and 41 didn’t; the other 19 withdrew. Thus of the 134 women who entered presidential searches, 6% received an offer. Only 3% of the 313 searches they entered resulted in an offer.

Number at each phase
of the process

Women CAOs responding 375
Presidential candidates 134
Presidential semifinalists 97
Presidential finalists 68
Offers of a presidency 8

Finalists who had entered the search through nominations and search firms had a higher rate of offers than those who applied directly, especially at four-year colleges.

What hurt? Discussing family during the interview—more common at private colleges that are “interested in the whole person”—had a negative influence. A finalist was less likely to receive an offer if she was asked about her spouse or partner, discussed the role of the presidential spouse, was place-bound or had children under age 18.

 Risks and strategies

Participating in a presidential search can be grueling and painful, ending in disappointment more often than not. While CAOs are the women most likely to become presidents, they must enter a number of searches before getting an offer. “It may quell the fire in their belly,” Dean said.

Joining searches scattershot, applying for obvious poor fits or withdrawing late in the search hurts your credibility with search consultants. Unsuccessful searches threaten your credibility at home. “You may lose a great deal of respect on your campus,” she said.

How can you increase your odds and reduce the risks? Learn from other women’s experiences. Be selective about which searches you enter and how you enter them.

Screen before you jump in. Will they consider you seriously or do they just want a gender mix in the pool? Investigate through your networks to avoid being a token.

Choose your timing. Consider the fit between job and family before you enter a search, not during the interview. Don’t bring up partners or children until you get an offer.

Enter with strength. Contact search firms, ask for nominations and make your hopes known to key colleagues and the ACE Office of Women in Higher Education.

 To contact:
Dr. Diane Dean

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