Career Patterns of Private Four-Year College and University Presidents in the United States

By Wessel, Roger D.; Keim, Marybelle C. | Journal of Higher Education, March-April 1994 | Go to article overview

Career Patterns of Private Four-Year College and University Presidents in the United States


Wessel, Roger D., Keim, Marybelle C., Journal of Higher Education


The American college presidency began with the election of Henry Dunster as chief officer at Harvard College in 1640 |14~. In the intervening years much ha been written about college and university presidents as well as chief executive officers in business and industry. This study focused on the career patterns of private, four-year college and university presidents in the United States.

Literature Review

The writings of Sorokin |17~, Taussig and Joslyn |19~, Warner and Abegglen |21~ Form and Miller |8~, and Spilerman |18~ form the theoretical underpinnings of the current study. Sorokin |17~, a sociologist in the 1920s, examined occupational mobility among various classes of people. Taussig and Joslyn |19~ studied social origins and social stratification of American business leaders. They were intrigued with economic inequalities and how they affected the abilit of various social classes to obtain certain types of occupations. Warner and Abegglen |21~ studied the business elite to learn about vertical occupational mobility. They developed the concept of "occupational succession," defined as "the ordered process by which individuals succeed each other in occupations. Th study of occupational succession, therefore, consists of examining the circulation and movement of personnel through positions, and of determining the regularities and uniformities which have to do with entering, holding, and leaving a given status." |21, p. 4~. Form and Miller |8~, whose emphasis was on "vertical mobility," grouped occupations according to the major category of the last job prior to the current position. Spilerman |18~ used the "career trajectory" to investigate the sequence of jobs that similar groups of individuals have. His definition of a "job trajectory" was a "work history that is common to a portion of the labor force" |18, p. 551~. A career line is "a collection of jobs in which there is a high probability of movement from one position to another on the list" |18, p. 560~. The idea was that normative career trajectories were established by sequentially ordering entry positions that culminate in a single, fixed "top-of-the-ladder" position.

Cohen and March identified a hierarchical pattern of promotion through academic administration toward the college or university presidency |5~. The typical American college president entered his/her academic career as a teacher, student, or minister, becoming a member of the college or university faculty. A some point the faculty member assumed administrative duties as department chair institute director or dean; he or she was promoted to academic vice-president, and then to president. Other writers, who had studied various classifications o college and university presidents, confirmed the notion of promotion through academic administration toward the presidency |1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 10, 11, 13, 15, 20, 22~.

In a nationwide survey of presidents, provosts, deans, and department chairs at four-year institutions, Moore et al. |12~ and Salimbene |16~ broadened the Cohe and March |5~ analysis of an administrative career pattern of college presidents. They identified fifteen variations (paths) of the presidential career ladder, demonstrating that the simplicity of a single career pattern was inaccurate unless variations of the model were included. Salimbene found that only 5 of the 156 presidents surveyed (3.2 percent) had a perfect match to the administrative career pattern as reported by Cohen and March. The majority of presidents had skipped two or three rungs on the career ladder. Moore et al. concluded that "the normative presidential career trajectory |Cohen and March 1974~ is accurate only to the extent that permutations and variations among its elements are incorporated. . . . It is most accurate in describing the principa entry portal to the college presidency -- faculty experience -- and in identifying four other positions that commonly appear within the trajectory" |12, p. …

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