Provosts vs. deans: Who makes better presidents?

The traditional provost-to-president pipeline may be a thing of the past

The "traditional path" to the presidency may be a thing of the past, Carl Strikwerda writes for Inside Higher Ed

The provost or academic vice president position is the traditional stepping stone to the presidency, but a 2012 study found that over 20% of college presidents are now hired from outside of higher education.

Other schools—particularly smaller, private colleges—are fast-tracking their deans to the presidency.

So why is the pipeline shifting from provosts to deans?

Internal leadership pipelines could help ease rocky transitions

Strikwerda, current president of Elizabethtown College and a former dean himself, explains that the answer has much to do with a shift in the responsibilities that deans and provosts hold.

Today, provosts serve as managers of their institutions' processes, which makes their role similar to a chief operating officer. According to Strikwerda, provosts usually have "few dealings with external constituencies, such as the news media, trustees, alumni, and businesspeople."

And internal processes have grown increasingly complex as the demands of accreditation, compliance, retention, and so on, grow more demanding. Because of their increasingly inward focus, provosts have "moved away from their traditional role of representing the academic core of the institution," argues Strikwerda. 

See provosts' top concerns

Deans, on the other hand, have grown to be more external-facing. Recently, Strikwerda writes, "deans became fierce advocates for [their] schools within [their] universities, as well as ambassadors to constituencies outside of them."

Deans work with fundraising offices, communications teams, facilities, and countless other outside support systems. "The deanship [proves] an excellent training for being president of a small college," Strikwerda writes. 

Another good place to find your next president? Student affairs

But Strikwerda doesn't mean to suggest that schools and president search firms should discount provosts in favor of deans or outside candidates. Instead, he writes, "We should try to counteract the trend to see provosts as unattractive candidates and instead make their position more of a pipeline."

In order to do so, he recommends giving provosts more opportunities to deal with outside constituencies such as:

  • The news media;
  • Trustees; and
  • Donors.

"The fact is that we should help expand opportunities for leadership for both provosts and deans," concludes Strikwerda. "Both provosts and deans have great strengths, and we should help more of them build on those strengths and progress to top leadership" (Strikwerda, Inside Higher Ed, 2/2).

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