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Reflections on ACE American College President Study

Recently the ACE (American Council on Education) released The American College President: 2023 Edition. It is the ninth iteration of the American College President Study (ACPS). The data it presents are intended to ”provide a comprehensive view of the demographics, challenges, and experiences of college presidents, helping all stakeholders gain a holistic understanding of higher education leadership and better reflect on ways to diversify the presidency.” The study report is important and informative, but we believe it falls short of providing a comprehensive and penetrating analysis of the challenges presidents are facing. In this blog, we summarize the conclusions of the ACPS and then suggest the challenges that should be explored and methodologies that should be used in future surveys.

The Study conclusions are focused on two areas:

“Areas of opportunity for achieving parity and equity in the presidency.”

  • The current population of presidents is not representative of the students served.

  • Presidents have been in their current position for less time than in earlier surveys (5.9 vs. 8.5 years), particularly among women and persons of color.

  • Fifty-five percent of current presidents plan to step down in less than five years.

“Other findings that lend important insights into the American college presidency.”

  • There are notable gender differences in when presidents aspired to, applied for, and were appointed to office.

  • Presidents of color, generally, and women of color, in particular, had different experiences with transparency and disclosure during searches in which they participated.

  • Most presidents reached the presidency via a faculty or academic career pathway.

Inside Higher Education, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Higher Education Dive, have also recently reported on the slow progress of parity and equity in the college presidency but placed equal emphasis on declining presidential leadership experience and the projected departure of over half of the sitting presidents within the next five years.

The ACPS certainly contains useful information about the college presidency today. But we would argue that, in a time when American higher education is simultaneously besieged by the challenges of COVID-19 and its aftermath, decreasing revenue and enrollments, declining public trust and regard, and existential challenges from new providers and Generative AI, the ACE has missed an opportunity to map and understand the full range of challenges facing college presidents in these difficult times. Here are some of the challenges we believe need to be explored:

  • What are the continuing COVID challenges at your institution, and what help do you need to meet them?

  • What are the enrollment and revenue challenges before your institution, what plans do you have to address them, and what help do you need to be successful?

  • What strategies do you plan to use to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion, and what help do you need to achieve meaningful gains at your institution?

  • Has public trust in your institution and its programs eroded in recent years, and if so, what plans do you have to restore that trust, and what help do you need to make these plans a reality?

  • To what extent are you losing faculty and staff at your institution, what strategies are you considering to reduce these losses, and what help do you need?

  • How are you addressing the emergence of Generative AI (e.g., ChatGPT, Bard, Bing), and what help do you need to be successful In exploiting this area to your institution’s benefit?

  • What plans do you have to pursue mutually beneficial partnerships, and what help do you need to make them a reality?

  • Do you have plans to reduce the cost of your institution’s operations, and what help do you need to attack this problem successfully?

  • How are you doing personally, and what kinds of professional and personal support do you need from your institution?

We realize that presidents are often reluctant to share negative information about their institutions in published surveys. For this reason, it is unlikely that these questions can be successfully researched using structured surveys alone. We believe that a more sophisticated methodology, using focus groups and face-to-face interviews as well as structured surveys, will be required to get presidents to engage meaningfully and open up about many of these issues. Although this methodology will require a greater investment of time and resources, we believe it will yield more accurate and useful data and information. It would also begin the process of truly understanding the training and support our presidents need to lead our colleges and universities through the difficult and challenging times ahead.


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