A recent study of higher ed leaders shows slow progress in diversifying leadership

The profile of a U.S. college or university president is slowly changing. The typical college president continues to be a white man in his early 60s, a new survey has found.

In its eighth edition, the American College President Study 2017 released by the American Council on Education (ACE), offers a snapshot of the leaders in higher education: presidential demographics, career trajectories, selection processes, and the duties and responsibilities of college and university chief executive officers. 

“Pressures to transform colleges and universities have grown, making the job of being president harder,” the report says. “Higher education has reached an inflection point as the student body diversifies, enrollments plateau, funding volatility grows, accountability and political climates become more intense and tumultuous.”

Conducted every four or five years, the survey its a relevant census in higher education. This year, the study derives from a 2016 survey of over 1,500 college and university presidents nationwide. Overall, the average age of presidents is now 62, the survey found, a decade older than in 1986. The percentage of presidents over 71 increased to 11 percent, from 5 percent.

In terms of diversity, the study found that the percentage of women holding the top job at colleges and universities was 30 percent, while the percentage of college presidents identified as Hispanic women was only 2.9 percent this year. On the other hand, only 17 percent were members of racial or ethnic minorities, rising just 10 percentage points since 1986.

“Diversifying the college presidency will only continue to grow in importance, especially as the nation’s student body grows ever more diverse,” said ACE President Molly Corbett Broad. “I am hopeful that this research will help chart a course for the future of higher education leadership.”

Other key findings include:

  • The most common road to the presidency continues to be the traditional route of academic affairs (43 percent).
  • The share of higher ed leaders who came to the presidency directly from outside academia was only 15 percent.
  • Only 24 percent of presidents reported that their institution or system had a presidential succession plan.
  • Two out of three current presidents were hired through the use of a search consultant.

Moreover, the report also examines the presidents views of the future in three key areas: diversity and inclusion; state funding and political climate; and other subjects of importance for the future of higher education.