Advancing to the Top
The traditional path to a college or university presidency is worn deep in the green landscape of academe: faculty member to chair to dean to provost to the top job—president, CEO, vice chancellor, or whatever it’s called.
But this furrow was first trod in the “golden days” of higher education—before tuition discounting, sliding state and federal support, instantaneous media with a “gotcha” goal, rising suspicion of the higher education enterprise, the race for research funding, and the dawn of constant campaigning.
No longer can the college or university president be simply a learned extension of the academic enterprise itself; today’s president has to be chief fundraiser, spokesperson, alumni cajoler, and enrollment advocate. Today’s president, before everything else, is an advancement officer.
“The modern presidency is very much externally focused,” asserts Timothy Caboni, president of Western Kentucky University since 2017. Caboni, who came up through the public affairs ranks, says even he was taken by surprise by the visibility of the role. “As much as I thought my years representing a university as an associate dean had prepared me, I had no idea of the challenges that face a university president from the first day you walk into the office,” he says. “So much of the role is about public speaking, sharing the institution’s aspirations, and shaping public perception by telling the story of where we are and where we are going.”
Advancement Professionals Have an Edge
According to the American College President Study 2017, a survey conducted every five years by the American Council on Education, college presidents cited budget/financial management, fundraising, managing a senior team, board relations, and enrollment management as the areas that occupy the bulk of their time. Notably absent from this priority list are curriculum development, promotions and tenure, pedagogy, and program assessment—the areas where provosts and chief academic officers have typically invested their time.
A 2017 report by Deloitte’s Center for Higher Education Excellence corroborates these findings. Survey respondents—more than 150 four-year college and university presidents—noted that fundraising, strategic planning, and enrollment management are seen as the primary responsibilities of this generation of presidents, followed by trustee relations.
These responsibilities are familiar to members of the advancement professions, who exercise these skill sets every day. Professionals who deal with external constituencies—alumni, donors, students, and prospective students (and their parents)—are experienced in the delicate art of balancing institutional interests with stakeholder concerns, finding the sweet spot in the Venn diagram where constituent interests, institutional goals, and institutional capacity overlap. But don’t expect this stakeholder experience to be sufficient.
“In most jobs, you think it will become easier over time,” says Thane McCulloh, president of Gonzaga University, who comes from a student services background. “But in the presidency, the exact opposite is true. Every time you set a new level of achievement, that becomes the new norm and people expect you to surpass that.”
Gonzaga, a private university in eastern Washington state, had never received a $25 million gift from a single individual. The first one was the result of long conversations and a vision shared with the benefactor, but once it was achieved, McCulloh says, “the question became ‘Where’s the $50 million gift?’”
And it’s not only fundraising acumen that is necessary for the new generation of presidents. Enrollment is a key concern. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows a nearly 5% drop in the number of high school graduates over the past 10 years, and the next decade looks no better.
Fundraising, strategic planning, and enrollment management are seen as the primary responsibilities of this generation of presidents, followed by trustee relations.
Nathan D. Grawe, a professor at Carleton College, in Minnesota, projects NCES data into an even more foreboding forecast. In Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, Grawe proposes a Higher Education Demand Index that suggests competition for students will get even more intense over the next decade. And since revenue from students makes up more than 50% of total institutional revenue in the majority of U.S. institutions, according to a 2016 report by the American Institutes for Research, understanding the institution’s position in the student marketplace is crucial.
“I can’t imagine how a president can be successful without an understanding of how enrollment management works,” says WKU’s Caboni. “You have to be a student of higher education, of the sector itself, and [of] your institution’s place in the landscape.”
Margaret Drugovich, who helms Hartwick College in upstate New York, concurs. “My enrollment management and financial aid background [is] extremely helpful,” she says. “It’s very difficult to fund the rest of your operation when you have to make student aid your top priority, but if you don’t do that, you won’t get the students who will make the most out of the experience you offer.”
Deb Taft, CEO of Lois L. Lindauer Searches, sees more and more boards and search committees taking into account the external relations abilities of presidential candidates. “Most colleges and universities are the major economic drivers in their community, and advancement leaders are uniquely positioned to stand at the junction of the institution and its external audiences—they’ve been operating there for years,” Taft says.
Finding the Right Fit
But according to Dennis Barden, senior partner at executive search firm Witt/Kiefer, the people who vet presidential candidates often don’t know enough about the day-to-day responsibilities of the job. “A lot depends on the willingness of a search committee to listen and learn—to understand what, exactly, the institution needs and expects from its chief executive officer, and configure the job description and search process to surface those candidates,” says Barden, who has taken part in nearly 90 presidential searches over 20 years.
And for Taft, Barden, and other executive search professionals, business is likely only to get busier. According to ACE, the typical college president is in his 60s—and yes, the pronoun accurately reflects the fact that 70% of presidents are male—and the majority plan to retire in the next five years.
James T. Harris, president of the University of San Diego and chair of the CASE Board of Trustees, argues that “there are not enough people coming out of traditional fields to become president—and since a high percentage of advancement professionals are women, the presidency can become more diverse by looking to advancement.”
Every institution entering a presidential search is balancing a variety of constituencies with varying expectations and needs. Major research universities—particularly those that house an academic medical center—will in all likelihood select a candidate who has experience in managing a research enterprise. A well-endowed, prestigious liberal arts college may well gravitate toward a more traditional candidate from the academic ranks—indeed, a plurality of college presidents were deans or provosts before assuming the presidency, according to ACE.
But for institutions that are facing revenue pressures, that are in regions where the demographics are not favorable, or that are caught in a gap between the reality and the perception of their institution, a nontraditional candidate is more likely to find favor.
A lot depends on the willingness of a search committee to listen and learn—to understand what, exactly, the institution needs and expects from its chief executive officer, and configure the job description and search process to surface those candidates.
The question of “fit” starts with the search process. Having a clear and accurate understanding of the institution’s position and the challenges the new president will face is key to a successful search.
“Board members are now focusing more intently on financial and market pressures in the search process,” says Taft. “There’s been a gravitational shift toward favoring candidates who truly know how to manage the academic enterprise.”
Working with the Board
For senior development professionals, in particular, board relations are a core aspect of the work. In capital campaigns, major gift initiatives, and annual giving, sustaining a high level of support from the board and other volunteer leadership groups is often “what’s measured” in a development office.
An advancement president will have had extensive experience with boards, having led and taken part in a series of intense conversations about the alignment between the institution’s direction and the volunteers’ interests.
“You have to have a clear sense of what a board expects from you,” asserts Augsburg University’s Paul Pribbenow, who has been president there since 2006 after coming up through the advancement ranks. “You have to have thought through the mission of the institution and your ability to wholeheartedly dedicate yourself to it.”
Caboni concurs. “One of the most important factors for success is understanding how to work with a board and other volunteers. If you haven’t been in that role before, you have to learn it quickly,” he says. Candidates with an advancement background have the advantage of having worked extensively with volunteer leadership in their previous capacity, he adds.
That perspective is shared by Harris. “An advancement background—emphasizing the importance of listening and finding common ground between an institution and its stakeholders—is great preparation. The truth is that when the work needs to be done, no one will judge the success of a president on whether he wrote another book—success will be measured by a stronger financial position, by faculty with the resources to do their work, by a strong student body and good graduation rate, by engaged and generous alumni who support the mission,” he says.
Those Who Think Otherwise
Once on the job, the advancement president may also have additional work to do with another constituency: the faculty—referred to by one university president as “those who think otherwise.”
By both academic training and professional experience, faculty have an earned perspective on the central importance of the academic enterprise, and they rightfully expect that the institutional president will appreciate and value what they do.
“Faculty members may have a hard time getting their heads around the idea of working for someone who hasn’t come up through the traditional academic path,” says Witt/Kiefer’s Barden. “This is particularly important when they think about the president’s role in the promotion and tenure process. Faculty have a hard time believing that someone who has never been through the process could play a productive role in it.”
An advancement background—emphasizing the importance of listening and finding common ground between an institution and its stakeholders—is great preparation.
This perspective squares with Deloitte’s assessment of the new presidency: “Veteran presidents surveyed tend to think of higher education as a collegial, intellectual community where they are the academic leader. New presidents, meanwhile, see themselves through a financial and operational lens and as a leader who needs to get things done despite the collaborative nature of campuses—a CEO role, not in the top-down sense, but rather a general manager surrounded by a skilled executive team.”
Or, as McCulloh puts it: The president is the mayor of a municipality—a community of communities.
For his part, San Diego’s Harris doesn’t believe cultivating a relationship with faculty, especially for a president from an advancement background, is very different from cultivating a relationship with a donor. “Faculty typically love the university they are serving—they love the student body and are passionate about their research,” he says. “If you view faculty through that lens, [and] if you’re a good listener—as advancement officers are—faculty will appreciate it.”
In fact, many faculty are already prepared to understand and support the external roles of the advancement president. Successful campaigns are built on relationships between faculty and alumni, between deans and corporate or foundation partners.
Faculty who have seen their projects receive funding from philanthropic sources, faculty who were themselves scholarship recipients or whose graduate assistants are funded by private sources, faculty who want to teach the very best students possible and who know the role marketing plays in attracting those students—those faculty may well appreciate the skills and impact of a nontraditional president.
Given all of that, however, it’s the smaller gestures that reassure the faculty that you know and value what they do. “I always show up at important lectures,” states Jake Schrum, president of Emory & Henry College, who has a development background. “I show up at concerts. When [faculty members publish books], I make sure I say something to them in person, publicly, and give them a sense that I recognize how important their contributions are to the purpose of the institution. I read about the sector; I keep up on advances in the major academic disciplines. I don’t want faculty members to assume that I don’t understand what’s going on in the academy just because I came up through the advancement function.”
According to ACE, the most common road to the presidency continues to be through academic affairs, with 43% of CEO offices being occupied by a former provost or dean. But increasing numbers of presidents are coming from nontraditional educational ranks, with 5% building on a student affairs background and 4% being former chief advancement officers.
Drugovich credits her experience in administration as a key element in her success. “You learn a lot in the course of a career, especially when you step up to the vice president role,” she says. “You learn about how the organization runs, about the complexity. I was much more prepared than I thought I would be when I started at Hartwick.”
Taft emphasizes the need for advancement professionals to expand their range of activities to be ready for the presidency. “To get the job to begin with, you have to build a career portfolio, get experience in various areas around the institution—participate in tenure and promotion reviews, take part in curriculum assessment, involve yourself in student affairs,” says Taft, ticking off a short list of experiences to engage in. “To be successful, you’ll need exposure to a wide variety of activities in order to speak deeply and thoughtfully about the institution as a whole.”
Pribbenow began preparing for an eventual presidential role early in his career and was lucky enough to have found a mentor in the president of Wabash College—Andy Ford—who took his aspirations seriously. “In addition to my dean of advancement role, he made me secretary of the board to help [me] develop governance experience, had me chair search committees, involved me in significant building projects, and gave me other opportunities to learn by doing,” he says.
Pribbenow also believes it’s not just skills that make for a successful presidency; it’s all about character. “Emotional intelligence is the most important thing. You need to be able to be the calmest presence in the room as the heat is rising.”
For an advancement professional who aspires to the presidency, the advice is clear: Expand your range, write and teach, build your professional portfolio, and be ready for a challenge unlike any you’ve ever experienced.
And for a board or search committee that is looking for a new president: Recognize that the skills and experiences of your future leader are perhaps different from those of your past leaders—and that senior professionals with an advancement background may be exactly what your institution needs in an era characterized by increasing market, resource, and reputation issues. Expand your range: It’s time for an advancement president.
9 Tips to Chart a Path to the Presidency
Broaden your scope. Get assigned to search committees, participate in promotion/tenure review processes, sit on building committees, and get involved in strategic planning.
Find guidance. Get “adopted” by a mentor who is a sitting president.
Write. Identify areas in which your voice is legitimate, then research and write articles for publications in those areas
Present. Identify professional associations (CASE happens to be one of them) that offer podium opportunities. Develop proposals that put you front and center on issues of importance to the sector.
Get involved with your board. With your president, develop a suitable presence in board activities.
Read widely. Target authors who are leading the discussion around issues in higher education
Teach and train. Teach a class, and take classes yourself. Take advantage of leadership training or credentialing opportunities through universities, ACE, and other providers.
Tweet, post, and connect online. Engage with education conversations through social media.
Meet. Schedule sit-down meetings with search consultants, who can help you burnish your CV and presentation.
About the author(s)
Rob Moore is CEO emeritus of Lipman Hearne and the author of The Real U: Building Brands that Resonate with Students, Faculty, Staff, and Donors (CASE 2010). He also serves as the vice president of marketing and communications at CASE.
Article appears in:
Advancing to the top: How professionals from advancement fields found their way to top leadership roles. Plus, advancement professionals share how to avoid data pitfalls, and CASE celebrates 10 years of training the next generation of fundraisers.