Follow the Leader? the State of Higher Education through Presidential Eyes

Article excerpt

Among all the positions in academe, that of president or chancellor is perhaps the most widely recognized and least understood. The leader of a campus or system is, after all, usually the most visible representative of the institution (except for, perhaps, the football or basketball coach), but has one of its most vaguely denned job descriptions. The university leader is a unique blend of booster, scholar, and CEO-an embodiment of the multiple directions in which today's colleges and universities are simultaneously tugged. For that reason, the state of the college presidency serves as an important bellwether for the state of higher education at large. Current research and dialogue exploring the academic presidency and its interaction with key issues and constituencies bear careful examination, as they provide insight into what lies ahead.

Two initiatives bring the state of the presidency into sharp focus-The Chronicle of Higher Educations first-ever survey of college and university leaders, and the Association of Governing Board's (AGB) Task Force on the State of the Presidency in American Higher Education. The survey, which garnered responses from 57 percent of CEOS of four-year institutions, included a range of personal, professional, and political questions. The task force, headed by former Virginia governor Gerald Baliles, is charged with exploring "issues bearing on how the presidency is evolving in an increasingly competitive global environment, what challenges lie ahead, and how governing boards can select and sustain effective leaders."

The Chronicle survey points to a set of core issues that the task force, individual presidents, and academe at large must be prepared to face in the near term. These include:

* The Money Pit. Anyone who has observed a college or university president recently knows first-hand the claim that fundraising has on their professional life. Indeed, John Maguire, head of the firm that conducted the Chronicle survey, speaks of "an obsession, day in and day out, with things related to finance." The survey boldly underscores this, with more than half of respondents (53 percent) indicating that they attend to some aspect of fundraising on a daily basis, and just over 90 percent reporting that they engage in fundraising activities at least once a week. A similar number of presidents (88 percent) responded that they deal with budget and finance issues on a daily or at least weekly basis. Similarly, the survey reports that the campus leaders with whom the CEO meets most frequently are those related to fiscal/resource matters: the chief financial officer and the director of development/ advancement (well ahead of student affairs, enrollment/ admissions, and general counsel).

So what does the increasingly intense pursuit of private support mean for presidents and the institutions they serve? First, such a trend can-and does-have an impact on what decisions are made regarding campus planning and priorities and how those decisions are made. Consequently, educators, boards, and policymakers must work harder to maintain focus on institutional mission and direction. second, growing external demands on presidents require increased internal responsibilities for provosts and other senior leaders on the campus, which in turn calls for greater planning and coordination. Finally, such a trend demands more intentional preparation of presidents for the rigors of development and advancement, as respondents to the Chronicle survey singled out fundraising as the aspect of the presidency that they were least prepared to tackle, and the largest continuing challenge of their job.

* The Winds of Change. Despite the well-worn clichés about colleges and universities as bastions of the status quo, the attitudes of campus leaders on crucial but contentious issues suggest that real debate and even real change are on the horizon. The Chronicle survey found that:

* Two-thirds of presidents (67 percent) disagree with the opinion that campuses can do little to contain costs. …