A Study of Chief Academic Officers at Independent Colleges and Universities, 2009–2019

CAO Study 2019 report cover

​Chief academic officers (CAOs) of independent colleges and universities are the principal leaders of their institutions’ academic programs. As such, they oversee the core teaching, research, and academic service functions of their colleges and universities. They also often serve as the seconds-in-command of their institutions after the president; this may entail oversight of programs and functions that are not strictly academic in nature.

For more than a decade, the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) has pursued a research agenda that in part supports professional development for leaders of small and mid-sized private independent colleges and universities. This has included a study of CIC chief academic officers’ demographic characteristics, institutional roles, and career aspirations (Hartley and Godin 2010) using data from the American Council on Education’s (ACE) census of chief academic officers conducted in 2008 (Eckel et al. 2009). Given current changes in the higher education landscape—especially in the small and mid-sized independent college sector—re-examining the demographics, institutional roles, and career plans of chief academic officers at CIC institutions became a research priority.

This study extends Hartley and Godin’s work but focuses only on chief academic officers at CIC member institutions surveyed in February–March 2019 using the instrument provided by ACE. In addition, previous CIC-specific data from the last ACE census of chief academic officers conducted in 2013 were used to examine trends over time. A total of 241 usable responses were collected from the CIC membership (totaling 652 institutions at the time the survey was conducted for a 37 percent response rate). Because this number is lower than previous CIC chief academic officers’ responses in previous iterations of the survey (356 in 2009 and 331 in 2013, respectively), the results are interpreted with caution.

The first chapter of this report examines both institutional and individual demographics of CIC chief academic officers. Institutions are examined by full-time equivalent (FTE) student enrollment, geographic region, and Basic Carnegie Classification, while CAOs’ demographics are analyzed according to age, race, gender, academic field of study, and other characteristics. The second chapter explores the pathways taken to the chief academic officer position as well as career alterations along the way. The third chapter discusses chief academic officers’ duties and responsibilities as well as their relationships with others in the executive cabinet including the president. The fourth chapter investigates their next career steps and potential presidential aspirations. The final chapter discusses implications of the study results and offers suggestions for next steps in research and practice. Appendixes contain more detailed tables and a copy of the survey instrument.

​Council of Independent Colleges
By Lesley McBain, Harold V. Hartley III, Kerry E. Pannell, and Katherine M. Whatley
October 2019