Thursday, June 26, 2008

So you want to be a president

There are a lot of people studying higher education at the graduate level who aim to some day be college presidents. It's getting to the point where my response is, "Another one?," while trying to restrain myself from patting them on the head. Statistically, you see, most of them just don't have much chance, any more than your average aspirant to the presidency of the U.S. or would-be pop star.

Most college presidents followed what is known as "the traditional path." That is, they started off as professors, then eventually became a department chair, an assistant dean, a dean, a provost, and finally a president. They may skip a step or two, but it's rare to go from prof to prez. (It does happen.) The number of non-traditional presidents was rising for a while, but it has plateaued at well under 50% of new appointments. Keep in mind that "non-traditional" includes not only non-faculty tracks within colleges (i.e., student affairs) but also non-academic careers like government or business - and the latter seem to make up the majority of non-traditional hires.

Presumably, higher ed grad students are not aiming to go non-trad outside of academia. They may wish to move up through student affairs; they don't plan to become real estate moguls. Like any institution, academia has fewer places as you move up the ladder - there are more profs than chairs, more chairs than deans, more deans than provosts. (The exception is that there are not more provosts than presidents, since each school has one of each.) So ponder this: If you wanted to be promoted, would you be better off entering a field where lots of your colleagues want administrative posts (education) or where only a few do (physics, sociology, nursing, take your pick)? The competition is even fiercer on the non-faculty side of the house.

Now those who study higher education do have a particular advantage in that they often vhave theoretical knowledge of running institutions of higher education. But they also have the disadvantage of having degrees in one of the least respected fields of academia. Surf on over to the Chronicle of Higher Education forums and see what other disciplines have to say about ed doctorates if you need examples. This mitigates any advantage those studying higher education have over their competitors.

Essentially, the smart way to aim at the presidency is to study a field outside of education that has the repute of some degree of rigor, where few of your colleagues have people/leadership skills. (May I suggest economics?) This doesn't mean that no higher ed aspirants will reach their goal; I have bets on at least one particular person I know making it. It does mean, I think, that one is better off keeping one's aspirations to oneself early in the career. If you're already a provost - please, do let people know; that's how you get onto the radar of search committees. But if you're still in grad school? If you're on message boards with names like "futureuniprez" after a few years in fundraising work, trying to decide where to get an EdD? Maybe you're better off letting people know what you can offer in the next job you're ready for, which is assuredly not the presidency.

At that early point, after all, you're not just aiming for the statistically improbable. You're also making the career mistake of telling those who hire what you want to get, not what you can give. One of my mentors has said that leadership in academia is very much about being tapped rather than applying for it. When people talk about their presidential aspirations, they often fail to demonstrate they understand how to get there from here. That's cute in a second grader who wants to be president of the U.S., but not so cute in a 20-something scavenging for free food at the annual conference. If you want to be a college president, prepare yourself so you are ready to be chosen. Don't anoint yourself.

Of course, it's not like I have any credentials to give advice in this matter. All I'll lay claim here to is the basic math sense to understand the proportion of aspirants to openings.

And if you want to anoint yourself in your heart, go for it. Dream big. Just don't expect that when you tell your colleagues your dream, they're going to think, "Why, I never thought of X in that way before, but now I see he's destined for great things." They're going to think, "There's another one." And need I point out that it's never beneficial to be seen as just another commodity, a typical member of a set, a herd animal?

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