College presidents face declining enrollments, funding cuts, and changing attitudes about the value of academia. They also preside over an ever-growing portfolio of responsibilities, including strategic partnerships, advancement, and public relations. All of this, plus the unprecedented challenges brought on by the pandemic, make presidents’ jobs harder than ever.
To succeed in today’s higher ed landscape, college and university presidents need a few key skills. We pulled together personal narratives from current and former presidents about the skills effective leaders share.
Presidents need to think outside the box and effectively adapt to new challenges to run a “well-organized college or university,” says Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.
Flexible presidents also know how to break silos to find innovative solutions, says Mary Evans Sias, former president of Kentucky State University. When a problem arises, Sias says, “Some people are very into ‘we’ve always done it this way,'” but effective presidents don’t get caught in this rigidity.
A lack of flexibility can even impede strategic thinking, according to research from EAB’s Higher Ed Strategy Forum. A rigid mindset and cognitive biases, like the ‘stay the course’ syndrome, can lead presidents to adhere to a widely shared vision or belief even with evidence proving otherwise. Leaders with this bias may struggle to acknowledge weaknesses in their current course of action or feel that a struggling initiative can’t be abandoned because it’s too late to turn back, explains EAB Managing Director David Attis.
“The modern presidency is very much externally focused,” says Timothy Caboni, president of Western Kentucky University. “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,” he adds.
For a small-college president, a significant part of external relations is dispelling higher ed myths, says Barbara Mistick, the former president of Wilson College. “There is so much misunderstanding among families. And what we’re doing… is talking about what the real cost of college is today and trying to break down the myths that are out there, in particular that independent higher education isn’t affordable,” she says.
Reporter Nell Gluckman, who interviewed past and current community college presidents about their role, found that the skills presidents need to be successful have changed since the 1990s. Now, community colleges leaders also need strong public relations skills to advocate for their institution’s needs, convince the community of their college’s value, and build relationships with student and faculty, reports Gluckman for the Chronicle of Higher Education.
In a single day, a community college president may attend a local Chamber of Commerce breakfast, field calls from local politicians, attend a Rotary dinner, and lead a faculty meeting, says Karen Stout, former president of Montgomery County Community College.
Less funding and tighter budgets mean a greater portion of the president’s job involves fundraising. College presidents cite financial management and fundraising among the areas that occupy the bulk of their time, according to the American College President 2017 survey.
“An advancement background—emphasizing the importance of listening and finding common ground between an institution and its stakeholders—is great preparation,” says James Harris, president of the University of San Diego and a chair at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. A president’s success will partly be measured by the institution’s financial position and whether faculty have the resources to do their work, says Harris.
Read more about the state of college presidents
The shrinking enrollment pipeline is "becoming kind of an existential threat for a lot of institutions," says EAB's Managing Director of Strategic Research.
The EAB Daily Briefing team sat down with EAB Executive Director Melanie Ho, who recently wrapped up a listening tour to understand the challenges facing presidents today.