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College Chief Academic Affairs Officers and University

Various Titles, Typical Career Path, Role Of The Chief Academic Officer

A college's chief academic affairs officer, often referred to as the chief academic officer (CAO), fulfills the essential role of ensuring that an institution's educational mission is achieved. Successful completion of this overarching goal involves work across multiple constituencies and the use of a number of measures, such as personnel and budgetary decisions, to influence educational outcomes. Despite the important role that the CAO plays in the educational endeavor, there is little empirical knowledge about the position. Current knowledge comes from a handful of empirical works and multiple personal reflections on what a chief academic officer should be engaged in doing, as well as how they should be doing it. Three main issues related to the CAO are examined: varying titles, typical career path, and the main roles of chief academic officers.

Various Titles

One of the difficulties in understanding the nature of the work of the CAO is the litany of various terms for the position. The two most common terms in current parlance are provost and chief academic officer. However, at least nine different terms have been used to refer to the position. One reason for the numerous titles is that CAOs are expected to complete many different roles within different institutions. Furthermore, as colleges and universities have grown, the way in which responsibility for the academic life of educational institutions is handled has also changed. This growth has coincided with a transformation in the titles applied to those in charge of academic affairs.

The role of the CAO evolved as colleges became more complex. Initially, colleges required little more administrative representation than that of a president. Until 1950 the role of chief academic officer was embodied within the presidency. But as institutions grew and diversified, it became necessary to establish the position of dean, then to create multiple deanships. These deans either oversaw individual colleges or were responsible for a specific dimension of institutional functioning, such as the dean of research or the dean of students. In this manner, the role of CAO became more clearly delineated, as deans of instruction or deans of faculties (two of the several terms used to refer to the CAO) presided over campus academic issues. Other terms include academic dean, the title most commonly found in small liberal arts colleges; academic vice president, vice president for academic affairs, and vice presidentinstructor are used when an institution utilizes the vice president moniker for its administrative leaders. Otherwise, the title of provost is often used. In some instances, both the terms provost and vice president of academic affairs are incorporated to indicate the role of the individual as the second-in-command to the president as well as the head of institutional educational concerns. The title of vice chancellor is alsosometimes used.

Typical Career Path

The typical career path of a CAO begins with a prolonged stint as a faculty member. During their time as faculty members, CAOs generally serve on many campus administrative committees, and often on the faculty senate. CAOs also tend to have prior experience as both chair and dean. In their current role, CAOs frequently serve as the second-in-command within their institutions, reporting directly to the president or chancellor.

The tenure of individuals in the role of CAO tends to be fairly abbreviated. A 1987 study by Gary Moden et al. found that the mean length of service of the CAO was 5.3 years. After serving in the CAO role, individual career paths go in varied directions. Moden and his colleagues found that 37 percent of CAOs aspired to a presidential position, while 35 percent viewed the CAO position as a final one, contemplating retirement at the end of their positional tenure or shifting to a similar position at another institution. Only 14 percent desired to return to teaching in their initial discipline. Women were underrepresented at the CAO level, with males making up 81 percent of the respondents in the Moden study; the report does not include the racial/ethnic composition of their sample.

Role Of The Chief Academic Officer

While they support the president's needs, the central role of most CAOs is to maintain an inward vigilance lance toward the fulfillment of an institution's educational mission. The CAO therefore works closely with various constituencies on campus to enact that mission. By virtue of their position as second-in-command to the president, CAOs usually have jurisdiction over all academic deans, admissions, librarian, chief researcher, and all other academic officers. Therefore, the CAO generally has the power of approving all faculty appointments, as well as all college or departmental budgets and academic expenditures. CAOs are thus viewed as providing the internal focus of the administration, while the president provides the external vision and connection to community. While they may feel as if they are "on call" to the president, CAOs also have a great deal of power in their own right.

The CAO's internal focus may be conceived as having two elements: the development and implementation of academic goals for the institution and the allocation of resources to various departments and support services on campus to support those academic goals. As a result of this internal focus, CAOs frequently seek to balance competing needs across units within an institution to achieve the best outcomes for the institution as a whole. This often requires the CAO to act as negotiator and mediator, attempting to balance and accurately represent the interests of faculty and deans to the president and board of trustees–and vice versa.

In maintaining a focus on an institution's educational mission, the CAO is responsible for creating the principal connection between student progress and overall implementation of new programs. The CAO influences college values and outcomes, such as student progress through personnel, program, and budgetary decisions. Through a selective distribution of resources, the CAO may choose to reward or sanction programs that either meet or defy expectations. For instance, the CAO may provide increased funds for those departments with proven success or growing student enrollments, while paring down funds or faculty lines for those departments that show lower levels of educational outcomes or that no longer contribute strongly enough to the institutional mission. By hiring faculty who meet certain qualifications or supporting specific budget initiatives, the CAO may also seek to shape consensus or realize a vision for the institution's educational attainment.

The future of the CAO role is clouded in complexity. While CAOs may retain an inward focus and target the educational outcomes of an institution, the role of the CAO may be changing. As institutions continue to grow in complexity, the role of the CAO may shift from managing the academic enterprise directly to supervising and facilitating the actions of deans, who will begin to exercise greater control on the direction of academic issues within an institution.


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Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comEducation Encyclopedia: AACSB International - Program to Septima Poinsette Clark (1898–1987)