Survey of College Presidents Predicts Big Changes: Is Your Institution Ready?

Albert B. Blixt
Coach and Consultant on Innovation and Change

The signs of disruption coming in college and university leadership are ominous if we don’t pay attention and anticipate the changes. This post looks at what you need to know about presidential demographic trends regardless of your role. We also discuss the implications of those trends and how your institution might cope with their impact.  We look at how to keep innovation efforts on track and we offer suggestions for trustees, presidents, cabinet members and others to be prepared for a presidential transition.

The American College President Study 2017 (ACPS) is the eighth edition of the leading and most comprehensive study of the college presidency and the higher education leadership pipeline from all types of institutions including public and private, two- and four-year schools. It is produced every five years by the American Council on Education and provides a snapshot of the demographics of higher-education leadership. From this survey and other sources, we have been looking at the demographics trends among college presidents and their implications for leading innovation and change.

Demographics Tell Us Change is Happening Now and About to Accelerate
The bottom line is that the table is set for the current, stagnant demographics of the college and university presidency to alter dramatically in the coming years. Consider the following data about more than 1500 U.S. college and university presidents surveyed in the ACPS:

  • Overall, presidents are spending less time in each job. Their average tenure in their current job was 6.5 years in 2016, down from 7.0 years in 2011. It was 8.5 years in 2006.
  • The typical college president is a 62-year-old white male with a doctoral degree who has been in this position for seven years. He likely rose to the presidency through academic affairs and was once a faculty member. He is as likely to retire as to stay in the next five years.
  • The number of presidents age 71 or older jumped to 11 percent in 2016, up from 5 percent in 2011. Like many faculty, some presidents are choosing not to retire.
  • Women presidents were 30 percent in 2016, up just four percentage points from 2011. 78% of women presidents are serving in their first presidency.
  • Presidents who are minorities increased by four percentage points, from 13 percent in 2011 to 17 percent in 2016.​​
  • Hispanic presidents made up 3.9 percent of college presidents in 2016, down from 4.5 percent in 2006. The decline in Hispanic college presidents comes even as the nation’s Latino population surges.
  • 54% percent of presidents said they planned to leave their current presidency in five years or sooner. Only 24 percent said their institution had a presidential succession plan
  • The trend of hiring presidents from outside higher education took a step back in the 2017 report. The share of presidents coming from outside higher education dropped to 15 percent from 20 percent in 2011when many boards and search committees reported interest in hiring directly from outside the halls of academe. Still, the percentage of presidents who had ever worked outside higher education rose from 47.8 percent in 2011 to 58 percent in 2016.
  • ACE also asked presidents about their top uses of time. Almost two-thirds, 64.9 percent, named budget and financial management as a primary use of time. That was closely followed by fund-raising, cited by 58.1 percent of presidents.

Implications of the Data: A New Generation of Leaders Will Be Needed Soon
Perhaps the most startling implication from the data is there is a major retirement wave coming.  If it happens, it will mean that more than half of U.S. colleges and universities will have a presidential vacancy to fill by 2022.  This is both a problem and an opportunity. The problem is that boards of trustees and search committees will not have the traditional pool of candidates with a track record and prior presidential experience to draw from.  On the other hand, those same boards and search committees will have an unprecedented opportunity to bring on a younger and more diverse leadership cohort.

The question is, where will these bright, younger presidential candidates come from? They may come from outside of Higher Ed or they may be promoted from within. In either case, will they be prepared to face the unprecedented pressures facing higher education institutions over the next decade?  Let’s look at the world these new presidents will be walking into.

When presidents were asked in the ACE survey what challenges they face, these were at the top of the list:

  • Never enough money 60.8%
  • Faculty resistance to change 45.0%
  • Lack of time to think 44.1%
  • Problems inherited from previous leadership 34.5%
  • Belief by others that you are infinitely accessible 31.3%
  • Too many demands and not enough time 30.1%
  • Campus politics 27.0%
  • Difficulty cultivating leadership in others 27.0%
  • Work-life balance 26.1%
  • Unrealistic expectations for problem solving 23.4%

© 2017 American Council on Education

These pressures are not going away and the next generation of presidents will likely be learning on the job.  There just aren’t enough interested provosts or other senior administrators to go around.  Candidates from outside Higher Ed will certainly need a period of adjustment in a world of shared governance, budget battles, changing student demographics, declining enrollments and the other issues that will be waiting on day one.

Programs Preparing the Next Generation of Presidents
There are some steps being taken to strengthen the candidate pool, particularly in prepping future community college presidents.  Three of these programs are conducted by Ferris State University, National American University and the University of Michigan School of Education.

Ferris State University – Ed.D. in Community College Leadership
The Ferris doctorate program began in 2010 and has produced one or more cohorts annually since then.  Courses are taught by experienced college leaders, including current and recent community college presidents, vice presidents, and deans.  This program is designed to prepare leaders for the changing environments in education.  This inquiry-based, problem-solving, action-oriented approach is designed to develop the essential skills that will lead to success, regardless of the level from which graduates will lead. The three-year Ed.D. program is designed for full-time working adults. Most of the program is online with one weekend meeting each fall and spring class and one-week summer face-to-face sessions.

National American University – Ed.D. in Community College Leadership
The Roueche Graduate Center Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) in Community College Leadership Program (CCLP) was launched in January 2013 This blended-learning, cohort-based program addresses the competencies and characteristics identified as critical by institutions involved in community college leadership. The program prepares senior administrators, faculty, and other aspiring leaders to tackle the multitude of complex issues impacting community and technical colleges (e.g., accountability, increasing enrollment – with students often under prepared for college, decreasing state support, closing achievement gaps, demand for increasing completion rates).

University of Michigan School of Education – New Leadership Academy
The New Leadership Academy (NLA) Fellows Program changes the expectations that surround leaders and leadership development across higher education. The yearlong fellowship experience includes residential sessions and online collaborations. Residential sessions include an Orientation, four-day Mid-Year Retreat at the University of Michigan and a Concluding Retreat. During the Mid-Year Retreat, the NLA Fellows will work in teams to address a multifaceted case study that examines a contemporary issue in higher education. The case study, managed through a series of online interactions, is enhanced with interviews, background exhibits, and proprietary information. Each team will be expected to assess a particular institutional setting informed by the activities and learning strategies provided throughout the fellowship.

Implications for Innovation
One additional item in the ACPS report needs to be mentioned. Of the 1500 presidents responding to the survey, under 20 percent said strategic planning was an area of importance for the future. Only 12 percent said using institutional research to inform decision making was an area of importance. That raises worries that presidents will be reacting rather than responding to the disruptive forces around them. Without a firm grip on data and clear strategic direction, financial and fund-raising decisions are likely to be based on the demands of the moment rather than the long-term interests of the school. In this situation, the annual operating budget becomes the de facto strategic plan.

Innovation and change are the vehicles for every institution to adapt to a changing world.  If these processes are based on a sound strategy that is widely supported and embedded in the organizational structure, they will be much more likely to continue to function during a change in leadership. When we recommend establishing an Innovation Hub, it is for this very reason. Actions taken now to establish continuity will guard against institutional drift or knee-jerk reactions down the road.

Preparing for Eventual Presidential Transition
Luckily the future will not arrive all at once. There is still time to get ready to survive and thrive.  Successful new presidents or continuing presidents, as well as their direct reports will find their challenges to be future-focused and for most institutions this will require a significant transition from conducting business as usual.

Here are some actions we recommend:


  • Hiring a president is the most important responsibility of a board. Plan a board retreat with an experienced consultant to review or create a succession plan to prepare for planned and unplanned presidential transition. Pay special attention to how an interim president will be selected since that person will likely be at the helm for six months to a year. Decide how you like to structure a search committee, who should be on it, and how it will operate.
  • The board chair and the president should have a candid conversation about succession if that has not already happened. It is very important that the board should know in advance if the president is thinking of leaving or retiring even if the decision has not been made public.


  • Whether you are planning to remain in your position or move on soon, engage your board chair on the subject of succession planning. Decide together how that process should proceed.
  • Make sure your strategic plan is current and working. That means goals and objectives are actually informing action.  If you haven’t engaged faculty, administrators and staff in reviewing refreshing the plan, make sure to do that.
  • Consider how you can help to develop your direct reports in the event they will want to move on or take your place. Taking an interest in their future is the best way to ensure their loyalty today.

Cabinet Members

  • Consider what you need to do to prepare for a presidential change. Your new president may not be familiar with your area. Think about how you want to bring the new president “up to speed” on the issues you oversee.
  • Periodically assess your organizational effectiveness. Make sure your area is performing to meet expectations. Are you following the strategic plan, even if it is not an explicit priority? Are you ready to justify the value of your area?
  • Develop a talent management plan for the people in your area. Are you developing your people and getting them ready for more responsibility? What happens when a key person leaves?
  • Decide if want to broaden your skill set in the event you want to be considered for another position someday. Then do something about it.

Everybody Else

  • Selection of a new president is not your decision but you can stay informed about the process. Whether you are a dean, a department chair, a member of faculty or staff, ask yourself what can you do to make your area ready in the event of a leadership transition.

Coming Next in this Blog Series
In our previous five blogs we have focused on helping leaders refocus their executive function.  They included coaching insights and recommendation about innovation and change strategy and tactics, dealing with disruption, traps to avoid when balancing leadership and managing, new approaches for effective campus communications, and recommendations on how presidents and others can refocus their executive teams to ensure successful leadership for innovation and change.  These blogs are available on our website at

Next week we will looking at what might be useful advice for new or even continuing presidents. These suggestions come from our past experience working with some very successful presidents. In a future blogs we will continue with those topics plus identify and explore areas that are most ripe for innovation and change.  We will also share with you the organizational keys to success for creating innovation and establishing strategies for bringing it to life in your institution.

We want to hear from you. 
If you have a comment, a question, or would like to explore one of our services, please leave a comment below, email us (insert email for or call Managing Partner Al Blixt at 734-657-5772.

Source Citations for this article

“Behind a Stagnant Portrait of College Leaders, an Opening for Change”, by Jack Stripling, Chronicle of Higher Education, June 20, 2017

American Council on Education, American College President Study 2017

“The Slowly Diversifying Presidency” by Rick Seltzer, Inside Higher Ed, June 20, 2017

“One Hundred New Community College Leaders a Year” by Terry O’Banion, Community College Week, August 24, 2015