The American College President: Reflections and New Developments for ACE’s Signature Study

By Elizabeth Howard

August 10, 2016

Share this

By Elizabeth Howard & Walter P. Parrish III

The 2017 American College President Study is now available—see the ACE website for full details. 

Earlier this year, ACE’s Center for Policy Research and Strategy (CPRS), with generous support from the TIAA Institute, distributed the survey for the eighth edition of the American College President Study (ACPS), which was first administered in 1986. Across three decades, the ACPS has earned a reputation as a one-of-a-kind research tool that presents a unique and comprehensive portrait of the presidency and the higher education leadership pipeline.

Polling hundreds of presidents representing various institutional types and sizes, the ACPS has focused on key areas including demographic and background information, key duties and challenges, search and selection process, and compensation and incentive-based remuneration. The insight provided by the ACPS has been cited by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and other prominent research and media outlets. Past versions of the study have presented us with a unique demographic portrait of the presidency, and this new iteration will tell us a lot about what has changed and what has stayed the same as we look at the population of college and university presidents and how they understand the responsibilities of their position.

From ACE’s original publication of the ACPS in 1986, through the publication of the seventh edition in 2012, little has changed about the profile of the college president. According to the 2012 ACPS, which featured data from 1,662 respondents, the typical college president was a married white male who was 61 years of age, held a doctorate in education, and had an average tenure of seven years that was preceded by a chief academic officer-related role. Furthermore, these presidents identified their top four demands as (1) budget and financial management, (2) fundraising, community relations, (3) strategic planning, and (4) personnel issues (excluding faculty).

A deeper look into the demographic profile included in the 2012 ACPS revealed an aging presidency; the percent of presidents who were at least 61 years of age increased from 49 percent in 2007 to 58 percent in 2012. According to the 2012 study, such a shift portends, “. . . significant turnover in presidential leadership due to retirements in the near-term” (Leading Demographic Portrait, 2012). The 2016-17 survey will tell us whether the anticipated turnover did in fact take place, and if it did, whether it altered the overall demographic portrait the survey constructs. The findings of the 2012 ACPS also suggested that the pathways to the presidency are diversifying, reporting that, “. . . 20 percent of presidents’ immediate positions were from outside academe, up sharply from 13 percent in 2006 and 15 percent in 2001” (Leading Demographic Portrait, 2012). These data points and trends are important to consider within the ever-changing higher education landscape.

Each day, various higher education press and media outlets feature stories discussing the actions taken by college and university presidents, their interactions with campus stakeholders, and executives appointed to and exiting the presidency. Those stories give us an outside glimpse of the challenges for presidents—the ACPS allows us to examine how presidents feel about and manage those challenges, and how they map across the aggregate. The past few years have seen a dramatic increase in reported tensions around campus climate related to race, with the concerns of students coming to the forefront. Moreover, representatives of the government and the private sector continue to express concerns over the return on investment of higher education, which has led to an increasingly unstable funding environment as well as increased demands for accountability and transparency. The new edition of the ACPS gives us the opportunity to ask presidents about these relevant current issues.

New questions in the ACPS regarding race and diversity ask about presidents’ level of comfort and preparedness to address issues of campus diversity and safety. This edition of the survey also inquires about the challenges facing minority, women and LGBTQ presidents. We’ve also added new questions concerning the funding climate that presidents face, and dig deeper into their interactions with government officials, political constituencies, and their governing boards. We hope that the responses to these questions will give a sense of how presidents perceive their relationships with the federal government, policymakers and other partners who influence the funding and oversight of higher education institutions. Additionally, once the ACPS data collection is complete, we will perform several analyses, including an examination of longitudinal trends and changes across the multiple years of the study, as well as develop and share new tools for interested stakeholders to access and interact with the findings.

The required links for presidents to access and complete the ACPS was first sent to recipients on April 18, 2016. If you have not yet completed the survey, you have likely received reminders from ACE as well as from professional colleagues. All of those communications feature each recipient’s customized link to access and complete the survey. If you are a college or university president who would like to participate and you need your personalized link, or if you would like to remind a colleague to take the survey, you can click here to prompt ACE to send the survey link. Recipients who have not yet completed the online version of the survey should also have received a hard copy mailing of the survey in early August. If you have any questions regarding participation in ACPS, please contact Lorelle Espinosa at Readers who are interested in engaging further with data reports from past versions of the ACPS can purchase the 2007 report and 2012 report through the ACE website.

ACE thanks those presidents who have taken the time to complete their survey. We’re curious to see what this year’s data will tell us about the presidency, and are excited to share the results with you in the spring of 2017.

If you have any questions or comments about this blog post, please contact us.

About the Author

Elizabeth Howard

Keep Reading

Renaissance: The Role of Succession Planning in Diversifying the American College Presidency

As we seek to bring long-overdue inclusion to higher education, it’s time to reimagine the current pipeline to the presidency and eliminate the pitfalls historically marginalized people face. Ashley L. Gray explains how succession planning is a critical part of this process.

June 26, 2023

The Success of College Unbound

Four higher education leaders look at College Unbound’s learner-centered, student-driven approach to higher education and the institution’s 10-year journey through regional accreditation.

November 13, 2019

Study Abroad (At Home)

EDUCAUSE President John O’Brien writes that collaborative online international learning—or COIL—gives students and campuses options when it comes to study abroad.

April 20, 2017