The college presidency: A tough job, about to get tougher

Here’s what it takes to be a college president, according to a recent report by the Aspen Institute.

The late business management expert Peter Drucker is credited with saying that one of the four toughest jobs in the U.S. is that of the college president. (The other three tough jobs are church pastor, hospital CEO and president of the United States.) Whether Drucker ever actually made that claim is questionable, but, this blog post notwithstanding, the internet has taken this anecdote as gospel and run with it.

Whatever Drucker said or didn’t say about the higher ed presidency, there’s no doubt that the job has changed dramatically over the years. And if the job was tough 20 or 30 years ago, or whenever Drucker reputedly made his statement, it’s only gotten tougher since.

This is made clear by a recent report from the Aspen Institute. The report, which analyzes the findings of a task force made up mainly of college presidents, outlines many of the current and emerging challenges facing college and university leaders today.

The big-picture finding is in the executive summary: “[T]he demands of the college presidency are more complex than ever.” But of course you’ll want to take a deeper dive. You could start with a quick take on the findings via the Education Dive summary here. Or read on for my take.

An explosion of audiences

The big challenge that caught my eye has to do with the leader’s role as the college or university spokesperson or ambassador to a growing number of constituencies. This is nothing new, but the expectations are ratcheting up, as is the proliferation of audiences.

“I think the number of audiences the president has to speak to has accelerated,” Josh Wyner, the Aspen Institute’s executive director, told Education Dive. Presidents and chancellors are often required to act as college spokespeople to alumni, staff, students, corporations and legislators. “I think there are more folks to communicate with, and the ability to control a message has been reduced.”

Echoing that sentiment is task force member Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who told Education Dive:

We have to build relationships with alumni, and legislators and corporate partners, and we have to make sure we are supportive of teachers on campus and their support. It’s a matter of balance. Becoming successful will take years as you experiment. That’s why you keep talking to people and have them embrace the problem with you.

This growing pressure for our leaders to be the spokespeople presents additional challenges for those of us in marketing, branding and strategic communications. As we enter an era where our ability to control the message is diminished, it’s important that we think about how we can, to borrow Hrabowski’s phrase, have our audiences “embrace the problem with you” — and, we hope, help us develop solutions.

Where branding comes in

It comes down to the essentials of branding, and that involves influencing perceptions.

We know that a brand is not about taglines or logos. It’s also not about what the organization says it is. A brand is what the audiences or customers of the organization say it is.

Our marketing and messaging work can influence and shape those perceptions. Involve constituents to helps build and shape those perceptions.

But remember that shaping perceptions is a long game. Too often, our leaders are under tremendous pressure to deliver quick results. That pressure comes from many sources: governing boards, faculty, students, legislators — the list goes on. These pressures, too, influence our branding, marketing and strategic communications work. Sometimes these pressures influence our agenda so heavily that we end up focusing on short-term issues at the expense of long-term brand building.

Beyond the PR challenges

There’s much more in the Aspen report than the PR challenges I’ve touched on here. Other big challenges waiting future college CEOs include:

  • Grappling with affordability. If we think the pressures to make college affordable is heavy now, just wait. “The next round of presidents will likely be the ones who face the stiffest tests in the ongoing college affordability crisis,” the Education Dive article says.
  • A dwindling and non-diverse pool of potential presidents. There aren’t that many would-be presidents waiting in the wings for the job. And the typical pathway to the presidency — up the academic ranks — is keeping the pool small. The Aspen Institute report encourages higher ed leaders to identify future candidates and begin leadership development now.
  • Increased competition from unexpected sources. Will Amazon begin to compete against the academy to deliver courses? (Imagine access to certificate programs through your Amazon Prime membership.) Will Google drive innovation, at the exclusion of higher education — and even by bypassing the federal agencies that fund so much research? These are questions the future CEOs could face.

Not a job for Steve Jobs

I wonder what Drucker would think of the modern college presidency? Alas, he isn’t around to ask anymore. But someone who may have once read the list attributed to Drucker, Forbes contributor Rob Asghar, picks up the “toughest job” thread in 2013 (ah, those were simpler times). While we revere celebrity CEOs like Jack Welch and Steve Jobs, Asghar writes that the college presidency is “an underappreciated form of leadership that requires far more skill than being a CEO does.”

Here’s why:

Corporate CEOs lead through control

Being an effective corporate CEO isn’t that hard, really: Your biggest concern is ticking off your board; otherwise, you get to order underlings around and fire the ones you don’t like. What you say goes.

University presidents lead through cooperation

Being an effective university president involves much more diplomacy and persuasion and vision-selling. Yes, you are beholden to a board. But you have to lead through collaboration and cajoling, not control.

The most powerful group within a university is its tenured faculty. If they refuse to listen to you, you can’t fire them. That’s the whole idea behind academic freedom. But it makes moving in a new direction fraught with peril.

As one college president told me, “You don’t say, ‘Professor Smith, I need you to make this change.’ Instead, you say, “Professor Smith, I have a great idea I’d like to run past you. I really need your input in order to make this work, and I wonder if you have any thoughts about how to improve my idea and how to implement it?”

Can you imagine Steve Jobs saying that? Brilliant as he was, he’d last eight nano-seconds as the president of Stanford, MIT, Berkeley, USC, UCLA, Caltech or the other 50 to 100 research giants that fuel America’s economic and cultural preeminence.

Yes, the college president’s job is a tough one. And that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. In our role as marketers, we can and should help ease the burden just a bit, and help our institutions — and our leaders — along the way.


Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

5 thoughts on “The college presidency: A tough job, about to get tougher”

  1. I’ve just discovered your blog and am enjoying it here in Ballwin, MO. In this piece, one of my pet peeves emerged and caused me to lose interest in the speaker’s point. Remember when Mark Twain said “The difference between the right word and the wrong word is the difference between ‘lightning’ and ‘lightning bug?'” That’s what bugged me about the quote by Josh Wyner: “I think the number of audiences the president has to speak to has accelerated …” His exaggeration became pedantic when he misused “accelerated.” Only rates of things can accelerate, i.e., the rate of increase in the CPI, national debt, spread of disease. Simply using “increased” would have made the point and kept careful readers with him.
    Thanks for giving me new glimpses into areas I’m not exposed to anymore.

    1. Hi Doug. It’s great to hear from you, my friend. Thanks for pointing out the misuse of “accelerated.” I should be more attentive to the sources I quote here. The number of audiences may have grown or even multiplied, but you’re correct. Re-reading his quote now, it is ridiculous to say a “number [of anything] has accelerated.”

      Glad to see you’ve still got a keen eye. Thanks for reading.

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