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College Presidency and University

Characteristics, Career Path, Roles and Responsibilities

The chief executive officer of an institution of higher education in the United States is commonly known as president. There are some campuses, however, which use the titles of chancellor, dean, or chief executive officer in lieu of president. The diversity of higher education institutions in the United States has resulted in chief executive officers at U.S. colleges and universities with a wide variety of background characteristics and job responsibilities.


Historically, college presidents have been over-whelmingly white, Protestant, and male. By the late 1990s more than 19 percent of college presidents were women and 11 percent were members of other minority groups. The average age for presidents was 57.6 years, with 30 percent never having served as a full-time faculty member. More than 80 percent hold an earned doctorate, with the single largest field of study being education. Most college and university presidents are members of their institution's governing board, although not all have voting rights. The average length of service for a president is seven years.

Career Path

The path to the college presidency was historically pursued by ordained ministers. This held true especially for those institutions created to educate future religious leaders. As institutions began to educate beyond theology and law, presidents with educational backgrounds in the arts and sciences became predominant. These academic presidents still constitute the single largest type of all college presidents, particularly at four-year institutions. In the latter half of the twentieth century great changes occurred in higher education, shifting the role of the U.S. college president. Two-year public community college systems were created in most states as a means to provide greater access to higher education, and a number of four-year institutions were founded to accommodate the rising number of students going on to college. This exponential growth required the addition of many presidential positions. Many of those named to the presidency of the two-year colleges came from the ranks of professional educators, in particular from the staff of local school systems. Selection of presidents at four-year institutions shifted from academic ranks to mostly those from administrative positions at a college or university.

Increasingly, more chief executive officers are arriving at the presidency from areas other than the traditional vice president of academic affairs position. These nontraditional presidents are typically individuals who have worked in other areas of college or university administration, such as finance, institutional advancement, or student affairs. Some institutions have even gone to the business community for individuals to fill the presidency. This shift stems from the need of higher education institutions to run more like a business and to use skills of management and finance that are not as prevalent in academe.

Even with these changes in a president's educational and experiential background, it is still uncommon for college presidents to shift between different types of institutions. Individuals who have worked at two-year colleges typically remain at two-year institutions. The same is true for doctorate-granting, comprehensive, baccalaureate, and specialized institutions. For all institutional types, presidents are usually hired from another institution rather than from within the same institution. Due to the extensive nature of the position, the search process to select a college or university president often involves a number of individuals with a vested interest and often takes an entire year.

Roles and Responsibilities

The college president is typically responsible to a governing board for the successful operation of the institution. Some presidents lead an institution affiliated with a church denomination or a state system, and may therefore report to the chief executive officer of that particular organization. The president's relationship with the institution's board of trustees is critical. One of the board's primary duties is to hire and fire the president, and thus it is important for the president to be attentive to the needs and desires of the board.

Many presidents gain the full trust and support of their boards, which allows them to establish and carry out a vision for the institution. The construction of a vision for an institution by the president is critical because it tells the story of where an institution has been and provides direction for where the institution is headed. "This vision, if believed in by the faculty, administrators, staff and students, has the potential to transform an institution. The degree to which the president is respected and admired by the faculty will be the extent to which he or she is able to inspire trust and confidence, the extent to which he or she is believable, and can deliver" (Fisher, p. 101). Although the president is the voice for the vision, the president does not usually create this vision alone. The college or university president must identify, and be attentive to, the strengths and weaknesses of the institution. Understanding the capacity of those who work for the college or university and how the institution fits within the larger higher education sector allows the president to determine what the institution can achieve. The president must craft this vision, with members of the college community taking ownership in its development. Once the vision is crafted, the president must share it at every opportunity.

A significant aspect of the college president's role is symbolic in nature. Whether it is leading the opening convocation, dedicating a new facility, or presiding over commencement ceremonies, the president represents the institution. Within the college community, the president can use the influence derived from the symbolic nature of his or her position to move the institution in a given direction. Out in the greater community the president's role is often more prominent. Individuals not directly involved with the college typically believe a college or university president has authority and control over more than he or she really does. As a result, presidents may find themselves under greater pressure from external constituents than internal constituents. The resulting role for many presidents becomes one of mediator, facilitator, and consensus maker for issues both internal and external to the institution.

Internally, a college president is responsible for the effective operation of the institution. Most presidents have an advisory cabinet composed of vice presidents and potentially one or two other key individuals who help the president ensure that the goals and vision are being implemented in a positive fashion. The president's broad areas of responsibility include academic affairs, which encompasses development of the curriculum and new educational programs; oversight and maintenance of facilities; fund-raising and communicating the image of the institution through institutional advancement; enrollment management, which tracks graduation, admission rates, and financial aid to ensure stable student enrollment; the finances of the institution; and finally, the management of out-of-classroom issues in student affairs, such as judicial hearings, residence life, and health services. Although there are countless variations in the organizational structure and scope of responsibilities, these areas, in most instances, are overseen by a vice president. For example, many institutions combine facilities and finance into one functional area. The organizational structure of the president's cabinet reflects institutional as well as presidential values and goals.

Although the president has vice presidents and their staffs to carry out each functional role, the president will be involved at varying levels at different times, depending on the issue at hand. A president may serve as the final arbiter for a student judicial hearing, determine whether a faculty member receives tenure, or assist in the detailed development of a new facility for the campus. However, it is a rare campus where the president has developed authority in a top-down fashion. The president relies on the expertise and experience of his or her staff to accomplish the details of the institutional vision.

For most presidents their power is derived through their influence with the various campus and community constituents. In working with the curriculum and other components of the educational programs, the president typically encourages faculty to take the lead and reserves specific input for those items that are absolutely critical for the fulfillment of the institution's vision. As the college or university representative, the president's views typically carry significant weight. This significance allows for the opinion of the president to steer decisions in a manner perceived as beneficial to the college or university.

From the vision comes the task of strategic planning to enable an institution to achieve its goals. The president must look beyond next year's class size, the goal for the upcoming annual fund, and other short-term concerns of the institution to see beyond the horizon and craft a path for the college or university on its way to fulfilling the vision. Crafting a long-range plan constitutes one of the major areas of time spent by a president. He or she must also spend considerable time on and off campus raising money for the institution, visiting with alumni in areas with significant numbers, and meeting with key individuals who may have the ability to support the institution.


COHEN, MICHAEL D., and MARCH, JAMES G. 1974. Leadership and Ambiguity: The American College President. New York: McGraw-Hill.

FISHER, JAMES L. 1984. Power of the Presidency. New York: Macmillan.

FISHER, JAMES L., and KOCH, JAMES V. 1996. Presidential Leadership: Making a Difference. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press.

KERR, CLARK, and GADE, MARIAN. L. 1986. The Many Lives of Academic Presidents: Time, Place and Character. Washington, DC: Association of Governing Boards.

MURPHY, MARY KAY, ed. 1997. The Advancement President and the Academy: Profiles in Institutional Leadership. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press.

ROSS, MARLENE, and GREEN, MADELINE F. 2000. The American College President: 2000 Edition. Washington, DC: American Council on Education.


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