College presidents have weathered many storms these last few years, from racial injustice and civil unrest to the COVID-19 pandemic — and they are now preparing to face the looming enrollment cliff. The American College President: 2023 Edition, presented by the American Council on Education (ACE) in partnership with TIAA, gives us an inside look at the people serving in this vital campus role and what we need to know about the future. Over 1,000 presidents participated in the survey.
So, what can we learn from their responses?
Disparities still exist for aspiring women and people of color. According to the report, “the college presidency remains older, white, and male.” The average age for college presidents is 60, virtually identical to the 59.9 average age in 2006, and there are still twice as many men as there are women in the presidency. Representation is even worse for men of color (one-in-four) and women of color (one-in-ten). One possible strategy for reducing disparities is for institutions to reconsider their “recruitment pools and tactics,” according to the report. The most commonly reported pathway to the presidency was through faculty or academic roles. ACE advises that colleges and universities look to nonprofits, government, business, and administrative areas on campus to identify and cultivate diverse leaders. The survey revealed that women leaders tend to aspire to and apply to the presidency later in life than men, so offering mentorship and professional development early, among other intentional cultivation methods, could help build your talent pipeline.
Presidential demographics aren’t keeping pace with that of students. Today’s student bodies are increasingly diverse, and despite some diversification within the presidency, it is still trailing far behind that of the student population. Catching up will require institutions to build talent pipelines that account for diversity, re-evaluate recruitment practices, and consider new ways to engage and retain this diverse talent once hired. The ACE report calls upon “search consultants and agencies — and anyone else mentoring, recruiting, or hiring the next generation of leaders — to use an intersectional lens of race, ethnicity, and gender to seek diverse talent in order to effectively meet the diverse needs of current and future learners.”
Succession planning and preserving institutional knowledge is more important than ever. The average president age, coupled with 55% of presidents reporting that they plan to step down within the next five years, has created a perfect storm for mass turnover in the higher education sector. ACE recommends that colleges and universities: 1) “document and communicate the previous presidential transition process so that there are records to assist with the planning of future transitions at the institution” and 2) “Create a succession plan to assist with the inevitable presidential transition they will face.” Documenting the current leader’s institutional knowledge and planning for the transmission of it will be critical as well. The silver lining in all of this is that, if institutions are strategic, this is an opportunity for more women and people of color to step into this vital campus role.
For more information about the college presidency and strategies going forward, read ACE’s full report.
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