Virtual 2021 Presidents Institute to Foster Courageous, Resilient, and Inclusive Presidential Leadership

As higher education faces the consequences of a global pandemic and widespread demands for social justice, presidents must make difficult decisions quickly and with imperfect information. At such a moment—when the problems are compounded, the solutions are ambiguous, and effective approaches are still emerging—presidents turn to one another to compare perspectives, share lessons learned, and define new strategies.

CIC’s first virtual Presidents Institute, which will focus on leading with resilience, courage, and inclusiveness, will stimulate this kind of collegial exchange. Collaboration, networking, and mutual learning have always been hallmarks of CIC’s annual Presidents Institute—the largest gathering of college and university presidents in the country. The 2021 Institute will take place January 4–7; the virtual format will expand the ways presidents can interact with and learn from each other, engage with national experts, and benefit from the industry-leading expertise of the Institute’s sponsors.

The program will explore such questions as:

  • What are the most successful strategies presidents are employing to lead their institutions?
  • How do presidents reconcile past injustices in their institutional histories with demands for diverse and inclusive communities and practices?
  • What difficult tradeoffs are most durable as presidents chart the best course of fiscal and operational choices?
  • Who and what resources are presidents consulting to inform and guide their decision making?

The virtual 2021 Presidents Institute will feature a number of prominent speakers.

Danielle Allen headshot Danielle Allen, James Bryant Conant University Professor and director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, will deliver a moderated keynote address on January 4. A political theorist, Allen recently received the 2020 John W. Kluge Prize for Achievement in the Study of Humanity by the Library of Congress for her work on justice and citizenship in both ancient Athens and modern America. Since March 2020, she has been heading a collaboration of scientists and researchers from leading institutions, including the Harvard Global Health Institute and the Rockefeller Foundation, to develop a framework that provides clear, accessible guidance to policy makers and the public on how to target and suppress COVID-19 more effectively across the nation.

Robert Zemsky headshot Robert Zemsky, co-author of The College Stress Test: Tracking Institutional Futures across a Crowded Market, will deliver the plenary address on January 5. Zemsky is professor of higher education, chair of the Learning Alliance for Higher Education, and senior scholar, Penn AHEAD, at the University of Pennsylvania. He has spent his career focusing on how best to keep universities true to their missions while at the same time remaining market smart and has argued that colleges and universities need to be transformed from within. Zemsky will offer his assessment of the current higher education market, institutional stress levels, and strategies colleges and universities might use to reposition their institutions.

Early Lewis headshotAlso on January 5, a special Open Forum, “Reckoning with Race on Campus,” will be led by Earl Lewis, president emeritus of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation who currently serves as Thomas C. Holt Distinguished University Professor of History, Afroamerican and African Studies, and Public Policy and director of the Center for Social Solutions at the University of Michigan. Lewis will moderate a broad discussion among CIC presidents to consider such issues as student protests and demands; legacies of slavery and racism on campus; diversity, equity, and inclusion in the curriculum; diversifying campus leadership and personnel; and renaming colleges, buildings, and programs. CIC will award Lewis the 2021 CIC Allen P. Splete Award for Outstanding Service for his life-long devotion to issues of diversity and inclusion in higher education.

The Institute also will feature concurrent sessions and limited-enrollment workshops on practical approaches to presidential leadership, including a mix of evergreen and emerging topics. Numerous “round-table” type discussions will provide ample opportunity for presidents to consider with colleagues timely issues of common interest, including topics generated by presidents themselves. In addition, a plenary session on January 6 will feature a panel of CIC presidents discussing their approaches to “Courageous, Resilient, and Inclusive Presidential Leadership.”

“Presidents across the independent college sector are exhibiting remarkable leadership, rising to meet today’s unprecedented challenges with courage, resilience, and an inclusive spirit. Now, more than ever, presidents recognize the vital need to come together to share ideas, initiatives, and lessons learned as a community of educational leaders. CIC is delighted to be able to offer its traditional forum in a circumstance-appropriate and promising format,” remarked Richard Ekman, CIC president.

Thanks to an engaging and versatile online platform, the 2021 Presidents Institute will deliver timely content and thoughtful interaction with colleagues who lead similar institutions. A virtual sponsor hall will give presidents the opportunity to learn from and engage directly with existing and potential partners. And as a virtual event, participation in the Institute is possible at a much lower cost and eliminates the time, expense, and health risks of travel. At the time of especially intense need for connection and collaboration, this will allow more presidents than ever to engage in vital discussions on the future of independent higher education. Most sessions will be recorded and made available for viewing on demand: Registered participants can access sessions they might have missed, either during the Institute itself or for as long as a year afterward.

As in previous years, the Presidents Institute will include additional offerings, all held virtually:

  • CIC’s New Presidents Program will provide the “need to know” tools and counsel that will help presidents in their first or second year establish strong presidencies. This year, the New Presidents Program will include online sessions on January 3 and 7 as well as a series of other offerings throughout the year.
  • A Program for Presidential Spouses and Partners, developed by an advisory group of past participants, will run concurrently with the Institute program for presidents. Spouses and partners will share information and advice as they assume their new roles.

View additional information about the 2021 Presidents Institute. Registration will open in mid-September. For questions about the Institute program, please contact Harold V. Hartley III, CIC senior vice president, at