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Leading Demographic Portrait of College Presidents Reveals Ongoing Challenges in Diversity, Aging

March 12, 2012


According to data released today by ACE, the typical American college or university president is a married white male who is 61 years old, holds a doctorate in education and has served in his current position for seven years—a profile that has not varied greatly over the previous 25 years.

The American College President 2012, the latest version of the only study to provide a comprehensive, in-depth look at presidents from all sectors of American higher education, was released during ACE's 94th Annual Meeting, held this week in Los Angeles, CA. The report was produced with the generous support of the TIAA-CREF Institute.

The 2012 report provides a sobering look at the continuing challenge of diversifying the ranks of the college presidency. While women have increased their representation (26 percent in 2011, up from 23 percent in 2006), the proportion of presidents who are racial and ethnic minorities declined slightly, from 14 percent in 2006 to 13 percent in 2011. However, when minority-serving institutions are excluded, only 9 percent of presidents belong to racial/ethnic minority groups, unchanged from 2006.

"Leadership that is not only effective but reflective of the world around it will be key to managing the challenges of today and the unknown challenges of tomorrow," said ACE President Molly Corbett Broad. "As students, faculty and staff become more diverse, we are reminded yet again about the importance of developing a more diverse pool of senior leaders—a task which remains one of ACE's top strategic priorities."

The most notable change in the presidential profile is the continued aging of the presidency. In 1986, the first year the study was performed, 42 percent of presidents were age 50 or younger and 14 percent were 61 or older. In 2006, these proportions were almost reversed—only 8 percent were 50 or younger and 49 percent were 61 or older. In 2011, the share of presidents who were 50 or younger increased slightly from 2006 to 10 percent, but the percentage of those who were 61 or older increased to 58 percent. This shift suggests there will be significant turnover in presidential leadership due to retirements in the near term, presenting an opportunity to further diversify the presidency.

"The anticipated wave of retirements among college and university presidents is of great concern and may present challenges or even a temporary leadership shortage," said Bryan J. Cook, director of ACE's Center for Policy Analysis. "However, it also presents a unique opportunity to diversify the leadership of American higher education."

Other findings from the survey include:

  • Length of service decreased to seven years in 2011 from eight and a half in 2006.
  • The chief academic officer (CAO) position remains the most typical precursor to the presidency—34 percent of presidents served as CAO or provost prior to becoming president, up from 31 percent in 2006.
  • After leveling off in previous surveys, the percentage of presidents entering that role from outside academe has increased. In 2011, 20 percent of presidents' immediate prior positions were outside academe, up sharply from 13 percent in 2006 and 15 percent in 2001.*
  • Presidents indicated they spent most of their time on fundraising, budgeting, community relations and planning. They cited relations with faculty, legislators and governing boards as their greatest challenge, and working with students, administrators and faculty as the area in which they take greatest satisfaction.
  • Search consultants were used to recruit nearly 60 percent of recently hired presidents, up from 49 percent in 2006.
  • One in five presidents indicated they did not have a clear understanding of some aspect of the campus or job when they took the position.

"Through the TIAA-CREF Institute, TIAA-CREF is committed to studying significant trends and the implications they hold for colleges and universities," said Roger W. Ferguson, president and CEO of TIAA-CREF. "Our goal is to develop strategies in collaboration with higher education leaders that guide future trends in the directions most desirable for organizational success and national competitiveness."

The American College President 2012 presents information on presidents' education, career path, and length of service, as well as personal characteristics such as age, race/ethnicity, gender, marital status and religious affiliation. ACE has produced the report seven times since it first launched in 1986. The latest edition derives from a 2011 survey of more than 1,600 college and university presidents nationwide.

* There is an inconsistency in a data point for the 2012 American College President Study. In some places the report references a percentage for presidents whose last prior position was outside higher education that is incorrect. The executive summary references a 20 percent increase in presidents from outside higher education and other places in the text and tables cite 11 percent. Twenty percent is the correct share of presidents from outside the academy. The difference between the two is the inclusion of an "other" category. The 20 percent reference includes those who came from a position outside higher education that was categorized as "other" while the 11 percent reference excludes those positions. To be consistent with past reports, the "other" in outside higher education should have been included. Additional references to prior position outside higher education throughout the text also do not include the "other" category and are inaccurate (for example Tables 10, 11, 12 and 13 in Chapter 5). We are in the process of creating an errata to account for the tables and text that underrepresent the share of presidents from outside the academy.

MEDIA CONTACT: Erin Hennessy ▪ 202-939-9367 (office) ▪ 202-664-4205 (cell) ▪

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