Revamping the Presidential Toolkit Is a Collective Effort

March 14, 2017

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By Jonathan Gagliardi

On the final day of ACE2017, Lynn Gangone, vice president for ACE Leadership, Josh Wyner, vice president and executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program, and higher education author and columnist Jeff Selingo joined me for a conversation about the skills and competencies college and university presidents need to successfully lead their institutions in today’s day and age.

The discussion kicked off by focusing on the lack of diversity in the presidency, which remains predominantly white and male, and which continues to age. Given the changing nature of the student body and the U.S. population as a whole, it has become more important than ever that the higher education community remove the barriers that prevent a deep reservoir of talented women and minorities from ascending to the presidency. However, as the panelists pointed out, the odds of that happening may lessen because search committees and boards of trustees increasingly seek out previous presidential experience in presidential candidates, effectively skewing the candidate pool towards older white men.

Regardless, presidents need more diverse perspectives if they are to successfully navigate a larger number of new challenges. As for the skills presidents need in these increasingly fraught environments, panelists pointed to some standards, but also some emerging ones.

For example, presidents still need strong backgrounds in finance and must also be deft in creating a vision that the entire campus community, but especially faculty, can get behind. Unsurprisingly, presidents should also be effective listeners and communicators. However, the emergence of social media and runaway headlines and growing questions about the value of a higher education have made it necessary for presidents to strengthen their crisis management and storytelling abilities in different ways than in years past. Strategic risk-taking and implementation skills were also cited as important for presidents to further develop.

Presidents should more clearly tie together their long-term strategy and vision with some of the difficult decisions that need to be made around strategic investment, and sometimes reinvestment, of a finite pool of resources. This also means they must sharpen their ability to use data to make better decisions, particularly at a time when performance and funding are driven by outcomes. Difficult decisions are unavoidable, but they are also navigable, as long as the campus community sees them as evidence-based and tied to sustaining the core identity of the institution.

If the job of being a president was already hard, it’s only getting harder. College and university presidents lead complex organizations at a time when institutions are facing intense pressures to evolve in ways that further promote social mobility and economic growth. They have to do this when it seems that more and more stakeholders are questioning the value of a higher education and the uncertainty surrounding the future of the traditional higher education business model. To make things more difficult, goals surrounding revenues, student diversity and research sometimes can be in tension with one another.

Given these ongoing changes, the skills needed to succeed in the presidency are evolving. Associations, search firms, boards of trustees and other vested stakeholders must work together to ensure that presidents have the tools they need to succeed. Our collective success hinges on it.

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