David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
So You Wanna Be A Chief Academic Officer

January 27, 2011:  So You Wanna Be A Chief Academic Officer

When writing It's All Academic, I worried that the short arc of Mark Carter's tenure as Provost at Boan University would ring untrue with some readers.  Heck, he barely survives an academic year, not even a fiscal year.

However, a dynamite new article in Inside Higher Ed by Susan Resneck Pierce illuminates some of the challenges chief academic officers face as they rise through the ranks and contemplate a future that is either a continuation as chief academic officer or as possible university president somewhere.

If interested in a lot of demographic data about CAOs and presidents, the first third of Pierce's article does an excellent job summarizing data from the following sources, including two more interesting articles from Inside Higher Education over the last three years:

ACE National Census of Chief Academic Officers

Inside Higher Education Summary of ACE National Census

Inside Higher Education Summary of ACE Report on Presidents

I'd like to focus on the core of Pierce's argument.  She notes the striking combination of CAOs not wishing to become presidents with their much shorter tenure than presidents (mean of 4.7 years for CAOs and 8.5 for presidents).  21% of CAO's leave their position within the first year.  So, Mark Carter, you are not alone! 

Over 60% of CAOs leave their positions in under five years.  And as Pierce points out, there's not a clear pipeline of faculty members to fill in the void.  And, with so many of the university presidents approaching retirement, the pool for the apparently natural step from CAO to president is pretty shallow.

The line between the duties of the CAO and president are more blurred than ever, with expectations of fund-raising, public relations, media relations, and frankly many non-academic internal issues.  These are responsibilities many faculty don't wish to shoulder.

Chief academic officers often have a better fallback position within the university, being able to return to faculty status, while presidents usually don't.  Two reasons for that have to do with the more traditional academic background the CAO usually has than the president, which is due in part because of the fact that the president has chosen the career path that will lead to fund-raising, public relations, media relations, and non-academic internal issues, while the CAO chose the career path of teacher and department chair. A second reason, though, that CAOs often have the fallback position is that they usually have risen through the organization and have established themselves as faculty members.  Presidents more than ever are coming from outside of the university and don't have that cushion of professional institutional history.

An additional factor, then, if we consider this dynamic is that the outside president almost always wants to choose his or her own CAO; the existing CAO, if not really interested in becoming a president, and already weary of the non-academic issues on his/her plate, is less likely than to look for another CAO position elsewhere, choosing instead to return to "faculty status." 

(Anecdotally, I know of one CAO, who the day a new president was introduced, announced that he was stepping down immediately.  Talk about a quick transition!)

Pierce goes into great detail about any number of reasons why CAOs have short tenures and rarely move upward.  You can read them in the last two-thirds of her article.  Most of them, you'll notice, require a different skill set and, in essence, a different personality than the one that made the CAO an excellent faculty member. That's the central challenge. 

In my case, I actually enjoyed most of the new and additional duties that came with being a provost.  Media and public relations were enjoyable (of course, I was an English and communications faculty member, so those things were not intimidating to me), and non-academic issues rarely don't touch upon academic issues, so I reveled in thinking about the connections between different offices within the university.

I'll be honest:  the fund-raising killed me.  At one point, a very sweet colleague suggested that I should apply for a president position. I told her there was no way I could "grovel" for money. I know it's much more complicated (and frankly delicate) than that, but that single factor, fund-raising, is, I believe, one that will continue to limit the number of CAOs looking to become presidents.