What's behind the high turnover among college presidents

Education officials say leaders need to be better storytellers

No matter their background, college presidents are having a tough time keeping their jobs, Jeffrey Selingo reports for the Washington Post's "Grade Point." 

In the past year, several presidents have been ousted—and still more are currently at risk of losing their positions.

Last fall, the University of Missouri's president and system chancellor both stepped down after student protests. In May, Baylor University's president resigned in response to a highly critical review of the institution's Title IX compliance. 

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Meanwhile, the "traditional pipeline" of presidents is emptying. According to the American Council on Education, only 30% of current provosts aspire to be presidents. And current presidents are reaching retirement age—on average, they're 61 years old.

"University president" is a more complicated role that it was 10 or 20 years ago, Selingo says. Presidents must juggle the needs of alumni, faculty, and students simultaneously. On top of this, they must fundraise and deal with budget issues. 

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"It's clear that the skills that characterize today's crop of college presidents likely will be different for a new generation of presidents who will oversee rapid transformations in teaching, learning, and technology on campuses in the next decade, as well as how their institutions are financed," Selingo writes.

So what are those attributes and skills? Future presidents should be visionary, data-driven, risk-taking, passionate about education access, and strategic communicators, according to academics and non-academics who attended the Arizona State University-Georgetown University Academy for Innovative Higher Education Leadership. Notably unpopular was the adjective "academic," though "intellectual" came up more often, Selingo writes. 

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Being a strong communicator is particularly important, attendees said.

"There was a sense that few college presidents today are like the giants of previous generations… who took on national issues and built a narrative that explained the wider purpose of higher education," Selingo writes.

The lack of narrators is the primary reason the public today questions a college degree's value and why states keep cutting funding, many officials said. 


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"If colleges and universities are going to fill their leadership void in the coming years, they will have little choice but to consider candidates who didn't follow those typical pathways through academia or who come from nontraditional backgrounds," Selingo says (Selingo, "Grade Point," Washington Post, 7/15). 

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