A Study of Career Patterns of the Presidents of Independent Colleges and Universities

Study of Presidential Career Patterns report cover

​The Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) engaged in research beginning in 2008 on the career patterns of college presidents as part of the Council’s initiative to reinvigorate leadership development for senior executives of small and mid-sized private colleges and universities. This research is intended to support a larger CIC project, “The Presidency of Independent Colleges and Universities: Leadership at the Crossroads,” which brings together the many CIC leadership development programs and services that have as their ultimate goal securing the future of higher education leadership. In 2006, the average age of all presidents serving a CIC member college or university was 60, with nearly half (49 percent) over the age of 60. It is highly likely that in the next ten years a significant number of these presidents will retire. At the same time, many executive search consultants have reported that the typical search for a college president attracts fewer candidates—and fewer well-qualified candidates—than was the case a decade ago. Through a greater understanding of the career patterns of college presidents, CIC hopes to be more able to assist in the preparation of tomorrow’s college and university presidents.

Using data from the American Council on Education’s American College President Study (ACPS), and with generous financial support from the American Academic Leadership Institute, CIC analyzed the career patterns, education, and other demographic characteristics of first-time American college and university presidents from 1986 to 2006. Because of the Council’s interest in the preparation of college and university presidents and the professional routes they took to the presidency, the analysis was limited to first-time presidents, thus excluding from the study those who had previously served as president of another college or university. To determine if important differences existed between presidents of different types of institutions, comparisons were made between first-time presidents of CIC member institutions and presidents of four major sub-sector groups, namely public baccalaureate and master’s (BA/MA) level institutions, private doctoral––or research––universities, public doctoral universities, and public two-year or community colleges.

The inquiry was begun by analyzing data from the 2006 ACPS survey. Based on the membership of CIC at the time, presidents serving CIC member colleges and universities were identified and responses to questions of interest were examined. Using this same CIC membership base, responses to similar questions posed in prior ACPS surveys were then considered: 1986, 1990, 1995, 1998, and 2001. This trend analysis helped CIC examine changes in career patterns over time. In studying the various career routes—or pathways—to the presidency, CIC considered the various types of positions held prior to assuming the office of president, the various background and demographic characteristics of first-time presidents, such as gender, race/ethnicity, age, and major field of study, as well as respondents’ sense of readiness for various presidential responsibilities.

​Council of Independent Colleges
By Harold V. Hartley III and Eric E. Godin
July 2009