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Presidents Growing Older, Serving Less Time in Positions

APRIL 26, 2018

Views differ about the causes and pace of resignations by college and university presidents, but experts generally agree that many campuses will see changes in leadership over the next decade as a large crop of older executives leave their positions and a dwindling number of younger ones show they are prone to move around.  A high percentage of college presidents are baby boomers who will be retiring and will need to be replaced by a new generation of leaders.  While serving as the president of a higher education institution is a highly regarded leadership position, the challenges are great.  Some experts believe these challenges are the reason the pace of resignations has been increasing over the past decade.  Furthermore, younger presidents now seem to be leaving at a faster pace, and the average age of college presidents has risen significantly.  

"There have been growing pressures over a period of time, and a few years back there was a perceptible increase in the number of presidents turning over," says Richard Eckman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, which represents about 700 small and mid-sized colleges and universities.  "Now, I think the average age indicates we are building to another large number of turnovers."  He also says he has been surprised to see the increasing numbers of younger presidents leaving their positions where they have been successful because of increasing pressures. 

Data from a recent American College President (ACP) survey by the American Council on Education (ACE) and the TIAA Institute shows the average age of presidents has risen over time to 61, almost 10 years older than the average age in the mid 80s, while over the same period the number of presidents under 50 has dropped dramatically from 42 percent to just about 10 percent.  In addition, the survey found that the average tenure has dropped by about two years over the past decade to about six years.

While the ACP survey suggests that the causes of difficulty among these administrators has remained the same (enrollment challenges, tighter budgets, faculty resistance to change, and ability to maintain a work/life balance), the number reporting each of those complaints has continued to increase.  There is often an unrealistic expectation from all stakeholders about the impact that a single individual can have on an academic institution.  This is why Peter Drucker, leadership/management expert, stated that being a college president is one of the most difficult jobs in the world because of the many different stakeholders or constituent groups he or she must serve.

I was incredibly blessed to have served as a president twice (Providence University College and Seminary (1993-2001) and Simpson University (2006-2013).  I considered it a sacred trust to have served as the president of both of these institutions.  However, I must tell you that being a college president is not an easy job.  The challenges are great.  I am thankful to have served as a president, but equally grateful to now be semi-retired and working as a higher education consultant.  Life is good!

Larry J. McKinney
Higher Education Consultant
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