The 3 traits that make a successful college president

Flexibility is number one

Three higher education experts share the traits that make an effective president in today's college landscape, Jarrett Carter reports for Education Dive.

David Turner, board chair of the Delaware State University and member of the Association of Governing Boards; Mary Evans Sias, director of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities' Millennium Leadership Institute; and Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, say the most important traits for a college president are flexibility, sustainability, and communication.


To be flexible, Eaton says, presidents should be "nimble intellectually and politically." Campuses today deal with challenges ranging from diversity and freedom of speech to shrinking budgets, and social media can broadcast problems instantly to the public. Being able to think outside the box and effectively adapt to new challenges are the keys to running a "well-organized college or university," Eaton says.

College presidents also must be able to adapt to campus' changing priorities—an important skill that Turner calls "transformational leadership." College priorities change rapidly, and transformational leaders can easily embrace these shifting missions. "If your board is not transformational, you're dead in the water," Turner says.

Sias adds that a flexible president knows when to break up silos. When a problem arises, Sias says, "Some people are very into 'we've always done it this way,'" but effective presidents don't get caught in this rigidity.

She also highlights the importance of delivering strong performance appraisals, emphasizing personnel management and training, and understanding how perspectives differ among people of different races and genders.


To be sustainable, a president must have "a solid strategic plan" detailing their institution's short- and long-term goals, Turner says.

This can be particularly challenging for today's leaders, who face funding cuts at the state and federal level. So it's vital that leaders "build a sustainability program with (many) revenue streams—graduate study, international engagement, distance learning, in addition to campaigns for fundraising, and private public partnerships," Turner says. 

Effective Communication

Effective communication skills are vital in a college president, says Sias. This means learning how to read people effectively, and appreciating ethnic and ideological diversity. "Not paying attention to the value of relationships can be destructive," she warns.

Be a stronger leader

The president of a university also should be seen as a thought leader on campus, which means that his or her ideas and insights must be effectively communicated to faculty, students, and researchers alike. "It's never you; it's always us,"Sias says.

Eaton adds that the president should practice "shared governance" and understand and account for all perspectives (Carter, Education Dive, 10/17).

Most leaders majored in the liberal arts

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