Special Report: President Richard Ekman’s Two Decades of Service to CIC

Richard Ekman at podium
Richard Ekman presenting during the 30th annual Institute for Chief Academic Officers, held in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in October 2002.

After 21 years of service as president of the Council of Independent Colleges, Richard Ekman will retire July 9, 2021. Under his steady hand, CIC has flourished in many ways: Membership has increased by 50 percent; the two major institutes have grown to be the largest annual gatherings of college and university presidents and CAOs in the country; many new programs, services, and partnerships have been launched and have drawn wide interest; and support from a wide range of foundations and sponsors has expanded dramatically.

Building on this success, Marjorie Hass, president of Rhodes College (TN) and former president of Austin College (TX), will assume the presidency of the Council on July 12 (see story). Ekman has been named CIC president emeritus and will continue to serve as senior advisor through January 9, 2022.

In her October 2020 letter to members announcing Ekman’s retirement, Katherine Bergeron, chair of the CIC Board of Directors and president of Connecticut College, said “Through his vision, CIC has become a powerful platform to support independent higher education in the U.S. and around the world. The landscape of higher education may have changed in the last two decades, but CIC has shown us the enduring value of the liberal arts.” She thanked him for “his vision, his exceptional work ethic, his exceedingly high standards, and for his creative and collaborative spirit—all of which have made the association what it is today.”

In fact, since Ekman’s tenure began in 2000, membership has grown to 658 private institutions, and four entirely new membership categories (Associate, Affiliate, State Council, and International) have been established. CIC now offers three times as many programs and services as it did 20 years ago in a rotating agenda of initiatives that serve presidents, chief academic officers, and faculty members alike. The increase in membership and the fact that most eligible colleges are members also allowed Ekman to speak forcefully: “We don’t hesitate to talk for the entire sector. With size comes the ability to speak out on sometimes controversial issues,” he said in a recent interview.

Richard Ekman sitting at his desk
Ekman in CIC’s One Dupont Circle office in Washington, DC—in the days of big monitors.

When Ekman announced his retirement in a letter to CIC members last fall, he said, “As I reflect on 20 years, the issues that loomed largest when I began my tenure at CIC now appear tame—even quaint. For example, there was a lot of consternation about the rising tuition discount rate as it exceeded 25 percent and worries that, if it crept higher, it would be unsustainable. We now know that CIC members are truly committed to making college affordable for those who will benefit most from it, have raised scholarship funds in extraordinary amounts, and can point to the superior track record of students, especially those from underrepresented groups.”

One of Ekman’s first initiatives at CIC was to conduct a listening tour, visiting two dozen campuses and meeting with more than 200 presidents, CAOs, and other administrators at over 100 institutions to determine what challenges they faced and how CIC could best address them and serve its members. The six biggest issues in 2001 were finances; making the case; president/ trustee relations; faculty leadership and institutional mission; changes in student demographics; and assuring high quality. “To our surprise, there was not much difference in outlook expressed in the different regions or by different types of institutions within CIC’s diverse membership,” Ekman noted.

Rich was always listening to CIC institutions, their presidents and CAOs, to learn what was happening on campus so that CIC could help meet their needs. At the same time, he knew that every campus could learn from other member schools. That is, Rich and the talented team that he assembled, both structured and brokered conversations that benefited our entire sector and made CIC indispensable.”—Chris Kimball, President Emeritus and Professor of History, California Lutheran University, and former Chair, CIC Board of Directors
Although those issues remain key concerns today, Ekman said, “the persistence of these topics doesn’t mean we failed to settle them. It means, rather, that just as in the cyclical nature of our changing student bodies, each generation needs to find its own solutions to these challenges.”

To address these issues, Ekman and the CIC team developed a number of programs and initiatives to support CIC members in leadership development, governance, research, data collection and analysis, assessment, and core academic fields such as history, classics, art history, science, and philosophy.

Launching these programs required fresh sources of money, so fundraising and establishing partnerships with foundations became a primary goal. Under Ekman’s leadership, CIC secured a total of more than $47.5 million from 35 foundations, with significant grants from the Lilly Endowment, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Strada Education Network, Walmart Foundation, UPS Foundation, Henry Luce Foundation, Teagle Foundation, Lumina Foundation, Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, Carnegie Corporation of New York, AARP Foundation, W. M. Keck Foundation, Getty Grant Program, Samuel H. Kress Foundation, and others.

Leadership and Governance. The challenges faced by higher education in the early 21st century required, Ekman recognized, outstanding campus leadership at both the presidential and board levels. Supporting those who make the most crucial decisions for their institutions is core to CIC’s mission. Therefore, Ekman both built on long-standing professional development offerings such as the Presidents Institute (since 1970), the Institute for Chief Academic Officers (since 1972), the New Presidents Program (since 1989), and the Conversation between Foundation Officers and College and University Presidents (since 1989); and created a suite of wholly new leadership development programs that offer practical assistance to campus leaders and associates. These include the Workshops for Department and Division Chairs, Presidents Governance Academy, Presidential Vocation and Institutional Mission program, and, with the American Academic Leadership Institute, the Executive Leadership Academy (ELA) and Senior Leadership Academy (SLA). “The ELA, SLA, and Presidential Vocation and Institutional Mission program have strong track records of success in advancing participants to more senior positions on campus,” Ekman said. Importantly, he noted that “we’ve focused in all of our leadership development programs on racial, ethnic, and gender diversity.” View further information about all these programs.
Rich Ekman has been a tireless champion for the liberal arts education CIC member institutions provide. His entrepreneurial spirit has led to innovative and cost-effective programs ranging from inclusive curriculum development to leadership enhancement and vocational discernment. His legacy of leadership at CIC will be an enduring one!”—Beverly Daniel Tatum, President Emerita, Spelman College (GA), and former Member, CIC Board of Directors

Research, Data, and Assessment. When Ekman arrived at CIC, anecdotes of small classes and dedicated faculty were the principal way to make the case for the effectiveness of a private college education. He recognized early on that CIC needed empirical evidence to bolster public claims for the superior outcomes of smaller private colleges. From that insight, he created the capacity for CIC to collect and analyze data and the idea of customized benchmarking reports for all members every year free of charge. The Key Indicators Tool provides CIC member institutions with 20 indicators of institutional performance, and the Financial Indicators Tool provides an easily understood assessment of an institution’s financial performance (see Benchmarking Tools and Services). In addition, with its improved research capacity, CIC began releasing a series of research reports on topics including student debt, college costs, free college, participation of low-income students in higher education, and participation of women and minorities in STEM programs.

Richard Ekman at podium in academic gown giving commencement address
Ekman delivering the commencement address at Barton College (NC) in May 2008.

Participating early in the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) also allowed colleges to tell the stories of their successes. Ekman strongly believed in assessment of student learning and thought it was self-evident that more data on CIC colleges would be useful and—because CIC colleges tended to outperform other sectors—that it was in the best interest of the private college sector to have the data and to reveal the results. Ekman also championed the idea that institutions themselves should drive such assessment initiatives and own the resulting data, rather than relying on government agencies, which had shown themselves to be prone to error.

CIC was the first national association to encourage members to use NSSE, when many were wary of its use. CIC was invited to pilot both the Collegiate Learning Assessment and the Lumina Foundation’s Degree Qualifications Profile. The issue of assessment has become more important over the years. We’ve tried to be in the vanguard of helping colleges make sense of the new approaches and use them to maximum effectiveness.”
—Richard Ekman

CIC’s long-running Making the Case initiative grew out of this new capacity to use data to promote the effectiveness of the liberal arts and private colleges. With a strong push from the CIC Board of Directors, the Securing America’s Future: The Power of Liberal Arts Education public information campaign was launched in 2013. It was a multi-year, million- dollar, nationwide, award-winning effort that produced a wealth of resources that enabled CIC and its members to engage meaningfully with the media, high school counselors, and prospective students and parents. It resulted in a significant increase in press mentions and a successful and still-active Twitter feed (@SmartColleges) featuring student and counselor avatars Libby and Art.

The most recent Making the Case program, launched in 2019, is the Talking about Private Colleges: Busting the Myths workshop series. The workshops explore key data about the impact and value of independent colleges and universities so that campus leaders, employees, and trustees can engage more effectively in casual, better-informed conversation with members of the public.

Core Academic Programs. Early in his tenure at CIC, Ekman noted that most faculty members at CIC institutions were not taking advantage of opportunities to participate in major competitive professional development programs. His strategy was to create “access opportunities,” leading to the launch of several faculty seminars with top-notch faculty and scholars, sound pedagogy, brief nomination paperwork, and fast reply times to encourage faculty members to recharge their batteries. “The result of this strategy is much stronger participation rates in professional development programs,” Ekman said. CIC has offered many faculty development programs, among them seminars in American history in partnership with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, Teaching European Art in Context, New Currents in Teaching Philosophy, Science Pedagogy, and Ancient Greece in the Modern College Classroom. All are designed to offer faculty members on CIC campuses the chance to work with leading scholars in their fields on current issues in curriculum, pedagogy, and scholarship. View further information about all these programs.

I first became involved with CIC in 1988 when I was still a faculty member, and thus I’ve benefited from the vision and transformational leadership of Rich Ekman throughout his entire presidency. I can think of no one who has made a greater impact on an organization or institution. I learned a great deal from him, and it was my honor to work with him.”—Thomas Hellie, President Emeritus, Linfield University (OR); former Chair, CIC Board of Directors; and Co-Director, CIC Presidents Governance Academy
CIC has launched several programs, all presently supported by Lilly Endowment Inc., on topics related to the religious traditions of many member colleges.

The Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education is a nationwide network of more than 260 colleges and universities formed to enrich the intellectual and theological exploration of vocation among undergraduate students. It has expanded rapidly and now has many programs serving a variety of campus needs.

The Presidential Vocation and Institutional Mission program for aspiring college presidents seeks to increase the commitment to personal vocation and institutional mission as fundamentally linked concepts for building and sustaining successful presidencies in independent colleges and universities.
Rich Ekman has been an extraordinarily successful leader for CIC. Especially laudable has been the creative effort to address timely issues—from new pedagogies in languages, art history, or philosophy; to consortial sharing of online courses; to fostering civil discourse around the most difficult issues of our day.”—S. Georgia Nugent, President, Illinois Wesleyan University, former Chair, CIC Board of Directors, and Senior Fellow, CIC
Interfaith Youth Core and CIC have cooperated on multidisciplinary Teaching Interfaith Understanding seminars designed to help faculty members strengthen the teaching of interfaith understanding and develop new courses and resources on the subject.

A number of programs have focused on the college library. The Information Fluency in the Disciplines workshops focused on students’ ability to use the library effectively at a time when libraries were incorporating digital materials. The Learning Spaces and Technology Workshops helped colleges and universities plan effective academic facilities. And the most recent initiative, Affordable Access: OER at CIC, will explore the potential of open educational resources to reduce textbook costs for students at smaller and mid-sized independent colleges and universities, especially HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions.

CIC is quick to establish topical programs to meet challenges of the day. For example, the 2018 and 2019 Diversity, Civility, and the Liberal Arts Institutes, conceived in 2016, helped many colleges address pressing issues of racial justice. The creation of the CIC Online Course Sharing Consortium in 2018 and its mushrooming growth have established a way to give students access to online courses in the context of a mostly “live” undergraduate education.

While CIC has a staff of only 26 individuals, it is able to offer such a wide array of programs with an additional 25 senior advisors—experts in their fields who have recently retired and work part-time—who run or help lead a particular program. Of course, the contributions of campus leaders who serve on CIC’s many planning committees and who lead programs are essential. In addition, Ekman has established partnerships with philanthropic foundations, corporate sponsors, scholarly and educational nonprofits, and others, which allow the Council to offer programs that wouldn’t otherwise have been possible. Key partners include the American Academic Leadership Institute; Academic Search; Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition; Interfaith Youth Core; Sage Scholars; UPS; Microsoft; Apple; University of Michigan Center for Social Solutions; Institute for Citizens and Scholars; New York Times; Acadeum; TIAA; Credo; Association of College and University Educators; and Ruffalo Noel Levitz (RNL).

Group photo of CIC staff
CIC staff and senior advisors with Richard Ekman after the 2019 Presidents Institute Awards Banquet, held in Scottsdale, Arizona.

One of CIC’s most significant partnerships—with the Foundation for Independent Higher Education (FIHE)—led to its merger into CIC in 2010. FIHE was founded in 1958 to support the work of regional fundraising consortia and secure additional financial resources in support of America’s independent colleges and universities and their students. Now, under CIC’s umbrella, these 27 State Councils focus not only on fundraising but also on other member services and grant-making programs. CIC’s management has led to an increase in the CIC/UPS Scholarship stipend, growth in the endowment that supports the scholarship program, and a decrease in the dues paid by State Councils.
The merger with FIHE was a big deal and somewhat controversial. Ultimately, the FIHE members recognized that as a small coordinating group for the state councils of independent colleges, it was hard to sustain the cost of the staff and offices as a free-standing organization. After discussion over several years, the FIHE board approved a merger with CIC.”—Richard Ekman

CIC’s dedicated and talented staff have helped make CIC the successful organization that it is, according to Ekman. “The work ethic is to pay attention to the details, be responsive to members, and to develop long-term relations with members and sponsors. CIC is known for doing what it says it’s going to do and doing it well and efficiently—that goes a long way. And it helps,” he added, “that our excellent team has stayed together for a long time and can build on early successes.”

As for what’s next for Ekman, he said he’s “not making any decisions right now. I’ll do something, but I have no idea what it will be. I have a lot of interests, some tied to my professional experience, some not.” He will, however, remain involved in CIC, helping Marjorie Hass through the transition this summer and fall.

Timeline of the Ekman Years


  • Richard Ekman succeeds Allen Splete
  • “Protocol for Collaboration” signed with Foundation for Independent Higher Education (FIHE) and National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities


  • Heuer Awards for Outstanding Achievement in Undergraduate Science Education established
  • Teaching Scholar Partnerships Program, with National Science Foundation and Project Kaleidoscope, launched
  • Presidential Leadership Services launched, including Presidential Forums, Presidents Consulting Service, and President-Trustee Dialogues


  • Survey of Historic Architecture and Design on the Independent College and University Campus published
  • Transformation of the College Library Workshops begin
  • Workshops for Department and Division Chairs begin
  • Data and Decisions workshops, with the Association for Institutional Research, begin
  • American History faculty seminars, with Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, begin


  • Membership surpasses 500 institutions


  • Teaching about Islam and Middle Eastern Culture seminar, with the Council of American Oversees Research Centers, opens
  • Presidents Leadership Summit takes place
  • Key Indicators Tool launched
  • Collegiate Learning Assessment Consortium organized


  • Making the Case initiative launched
  • Presidential Vocation and Institutional Mission program begins


  • Seminars on Ancient Greece in the Modern College Classroom, with Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies, begin
  • American Graduate Fellowships scholarship program launched


  • American Academic Leadership Institute formed
  • Financial Indicators Tool launched


  • Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellows program (now Visiting Fellows program) moves to CIC
  • Walmart College Success Awards launched


  • Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education (NetVUE) launched
  • Executive Leadership Academy begins
  • College Media Conference begins


  • FIHE merges into CIC
  • Membership surpasses 600 institutions
  • Senior Leadership Academy begins
  • Seminars on Teaching European Art in Context begin
  • Information Fluency in the Disciplines workshops begin


  • Degree Qualifications Profile consortium formed


  • Securing America’s Future Public Information Campaign launched
  • Consortium for Online Humanities Instruction, with Ithaka S&R, formed


  • Seminars on Teaching Interfaith Understanding, with Interfaith Youth Core, begin
  • Project on the Future of Independent Higher Education begins


  • Presidents Governance Academy begins
  • Consortium on Digital Resources for Teaching and Research, with ArtSTOR, formed


  • Network of State Funds renamed CIC State Councils


  • Sponsorship revenue for the Presidents Institute surpasses $800,000


  • CIC receives largest grant to date: $9.9 million from Lilly Endowment Inc. to support NetVUE
  • Diversity, Civility, and the Liberal Arts Institutes begin
  • Consortium for Instructional Excellence and Career Guidance, with Association of College and University Educators, formed
  • CIC Online Course Sharing Consortium, with Acadeum, formed


  • Seminars on Science Pedagogy begin
  • Legacies of American Slavery: Reckoning with the Past, with Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, begins


  • Workshops on Deliberation & Debate: Advancing Civil Discourse through Courses for First-Year Students, begin


  • Online Course Sharing Consortium membership surpasses 250 colleges and universities
  • Tuition Exchange Program reaches 439 members
  • Richard Ekman retires as president