Preparing First-Time College Presidents

October 29, 2018


first-time college presidents



Serving as the president of a college or university has always been a demanding and challenging role. In the 21st century, it has only grown more complex, as schools navigate tight budgets, declining enrollments, evolving student demographics and a rising focus on student outcomes.


At the same time, colleges and universities increasingly are recruiting leaders from outside of academia. Recent research from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) shows that 40 percent of current college presidents began their careers outside of the traditional tenure track, including serving in corporate, military or government roles.


It’s not surprising that presidents stepping into the role for the first time often seek out tailored training and development opportunities. Here are a few key considerations for new or prospective presidents as identified by experts in the field.


Evolving Focus, Enduring Leadership

To start out, meeting the needs of higher education today requires both fresh perspective and some old-school leadership skills.


Dr. Jerry Sue Thornton, retired president emeritus of Cuyahoga Community College and Barnes & Noble Education board member, now works with first-time college presidents in the areas of higher education leadership, coaching and mentoring. In an interview with NEXT, she noted that she’s seen both significant transformation and areas of consistency.


“The most dramatic change that I have seen in the role of a college president is the shift in funding patterns from enrollment-based to performance-based. This shift has led to an emphasis on outcomes like graduation rates — and a need for presidents to spend much more time fundraising and building up their foundations,” said Dr. Thornton.


“However, high-performing leadership remains a constant area of focus for college presidents,” she added. “They always need to engage in strategic planning and team building. As the chief leader of the college, they must motivate faculty, staff and administrators to be involved and invested in achieving the goals of the college.”


Joining the Campus Community

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education examined what a college president should do in the first year on the job. It featured a report from the Aspen Institute’s Task Force on the Future of the College Presidency. The report recommends being “intentional” with plans and ideas, but also spending time on immersion and relationship-building. The bigger, splashy deliverables can wait until presidents have taken a deep dive into the college’s challenges, established a presence on campus and set the tone for their tenure.


Joshua Wyner, vice president of the Aspen Institute and executive director of its College Excellence Program stated, “Coming into a presidency, you should have a hypothesis about where it is that the college needs to go. The key is to take that and really test and refine it.”


The best way to test and refine? Engaging with as many audiences on campus and in the community as possible. That includes both participating in formal meetings of decision-making groups, like the faculty senate, student government and relevant committees, as well as informal interactions with students, faculty and staff on campus. Presidents should be visible and approachable at sporting events, in dining halls and even as a guest lecturer in the classroom. They also need to reach out beyond the campus community, getting to know local leaders and employers, and building mentoring relationships with board members and other college presidents.


Serving as Student Advocate #1

Dr. Thornton pointed out that colleges may have specific leadership needs at different times — such as an institution facing pressing financial challenges. In those situations, schools may need greater expertise, though all college presidents should work to build experience in areas like funding formulas, maximizing revenue sources and developing and maintaining an efficient institutional budget.


However, she also asserts that, first and foremost, students and their educational outcomes must come first — before any other priority of the institution.


“The business of the college is the achievement of academic goals for students. That is the centerpiece around which everything else revolves: supporting teaching and learning,” Dr. Thornton explained. “It is critically important that the college president be an advocate for student success and focus the entire institution on creating pathways toward achievement. That is why presidents must be able to not only create a strategic vision, but also lead and coalesce all members of the campus community toward fulfilling that vision.”



Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.