The Climb to the Top: Advice from College Presidents
The role of and path to the university presidency has changed. Today’s college president has to be chief fundraiser, spokesperson, enrollment advocate, and more.
Increasingly, advancement professionals are making the climb to the top of university leadership. But to succeed, they have to find opportunities that fit their skills.
The Changing Presidency
Though most college presidents do still rise though academic affairs, according to the American Council on Higher Education. 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.
Fundraising, strategic planning, and enrollment management are primary responsibilities of this new generation of presidents, followed by trustee relations, according to a 2017 report by Deloitte’s Center for Higher Education Excellence.
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.
Tips for Leaders
Advancement leaders who aspire to a university presidency have to consider how to match their skills with institutional needs. Here, university leaders share their advice.
- Understand complexity. Margaret Drugovich, president of Hartwick College, 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.”
- Expand your portfolio. Deb Taft, CEO of Lois L. Lindauer Searches, 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.
- Find a mentor. Paul Pribbenow, president of Augsburg University, 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.
For an advancement professional who aspires to the presidency, the advice is clear: Expand your range and network, build your professional portfolio, and be ready for a challenge unlike any you’ve ever experienced.
Read more in "Advancing to the Top" in July/August 2019 Currents.
9 Tips to Chart a Course to the Presidency
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.