Paths to the presidency: The status quo remains despite slight shifts

Twice as many men as women reported leading a college. The more prestigious a school's Carnegie Classification became, the starker the disparity. 

For all the analysis of what’s changed in higher education following the pandemic, the current presidential landscape is a reminder that some patterns are hard to shake despite world-altering events, according to a new study from the American Council on Education and the TIAA Institute.

The American College President Study (ACPS) 2023 Edition found that the majority of today’s leaders still fit the status quo of nearly 20 years ago: white, 60-year-old men. However, the rate of women at an institution’s helm has increased by almost 12% since the turn of the century.

One of higher education’s most notable characteristics today is its elevated leadership turnover. Specifically, the average amount of time respondents had been holding their presidential position upon being surveyed was 2.6 years less than in 2006 (5.9 years today, 8.5 years then). Moreover, 55% of respondents today say they plan on stepping down within the next five years.

“While they may not necessarily be stepping away from the presidency entirely, the prospective loss of institutional knowledge and turnover of presidential leadership will undoubtedly impact hundreds of institutions throughout the higher education sector,” ACPS wrote.

Nearly 60% of respondents were not preparing a successor once they leave.

Additionally, despite 80% of presidents agreeing or somewhat agreeing they have a strong support system with whom to share their feelings and stressors, at least half of all respondents struggled to find people who understood their problems.

More from UB: Presidential exits: Some leave on a high note, others entrenched in scandal

ACPS’ ninth edition breaks down respondents’ answers by gender and race to provide stakeholders of higher education actionable insight into building parity and equity in the presidency. This ninth edition is the first to break down responses by race.

By Gender

Twice as many men as women reported leading a college. The more prestigious a school’s Carnegie Classification became, the starker the disparity.

Source: The American College President: 2023 Edition


While more than half of all respondents cited working in higher education’s academic sphere before being selected for the presidency, women were more likely than men to gain the position by taking that traditional path. Colgate University leaders Hanna Rodriguez-Farrar and L. Hazel Jack recommend that one of the most decisive measures higher education can take to boost gender equity in school leadership is to seek female candidates outside of the academic realm. “There’s a bias against women who are not in an academic rank,” Rodriguez-Farrar and Jack wrote.

Women on average began aspiring to become a college or university president later in life than men, but school leadership often taps female candidates for the position at a quicker rate between their initial aspiration and appointment.

By Race

Presidents of color made up over a quarter of all respondents, and female presidents of color made up a little over 10% of respondents.

Female presidents of color were the least likely to report that the search process provided a clear understanding of the institution or system’s responsibilities for the presidency. However, this demographic reported an exceedingly higher rate of respondents who agreed that they had a support system with whom to share their feelings and stressors—about 20% more than white men, white women and men of color.

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and Florida Gator alumnus. A graduate in journalism and communications, his beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene, and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador, and Brazil.

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