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In the hot seat

What it takes to lead at today's colleges and universities.

4 min read


In the hot seat


This post is sponsored by The University of Alabama College of Education

Today’s college and university presidents face a slew of complex issues, including making education affordable; increasing enrollment, retention and graduation rates; balancing budgets and finding new revenue streams; integrating emerging technologies; and creating a diverse environment where students and staff feel safe, supported and heard. The presidents are the ones out in front, guiding their institutions toward the future.

It’s a daunting endeavor, but an important one, says Arleene Breaux, clinical associate professor for the EdD in Higher Education Administration Executive Cohort program at The University of Alabama. Here, Breaux offers insights on how this role has changed, the issues these leaders face and the skills they need in order to be successful.

How has the role of college and university president evolved?

As the complexity of these institutions has increased, the role of the college and university president has continued to evolve. Early American colleges were often led by religious appointees or by faculty members that rose to the presidency to serve as a “first among equals.” In time, the presidency became more involved as institutional missions broadened and financial resources waned. Presidential responsibilities have always included working with external stakeholders to secure financial resources, but today’s presidents invest a growing and disproportionate share of their time building relationships with external stakeholders to meet their institutions’ needs. 

What are the most pressing issues facing today’s presidents? 

While the nature of the presidency means that these leaders must be able to comprehend and address many complex issues, national organizations such as the American Association of State Colleges and Universities place institutional finances, college affordability, and state economic and workforce development needs as perennial policy issues. The American Association of Community Colleges lists six leadership competencies that college and university presidents will need in order to effectively respond to these issues.

What are the skills that presidents need? How important is creativity to this leadership role?

Increasingly, college and university presidents must be adept at financial management, fundraising, community and governmental relations, strategic planning and academic personnel issues. A 2015 Inside Higher Education Survey of College and University Presidents indicated that while more than half of surveyed presidents felt confident in their institution’s financial sustainability for the next five-year period, just under 40% were as confident over the next 10-year period. As in the past, financial concerns will continue to dominate the work of college and university presidents.

Consequently, the ability to leverage resources and offer creative solutions through relationship-building and effective communication remains paramount for presidents.


About the EdD in Higher Education Administration Executive Cohort program at The University of Alabama

The Executive EdD program is designed to meet the unique needs of experienced professionals seeking a doctorate in higher education. The program helps students develop the knowledge, skills and abilities necessary to advance in leadership positions by combining theoretically rich studies with an applied research approach. The Executive EdD program is based on a cohort model that allows students to build an immediate network of colleagues. Intensive coursework and a carefully structured dissertation process allow students to complete the degree in nine semesters while also continuing to work. For more information, visit the program’s website.       

Arleene Breaux is clinical associate professor and coordinator of the EdD in Higher Education Administration Executive Cohort program at The University of Alabama and a fellow for The University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center. Breaux earned an EdD in Higher Education Administration/College Teaching from the University of Arkansas in 2006 and holds MBA and BS degrees in Business Administration/Finance from Nicholls State University. Her primary research interests are higher education administration leadership, policy, finance and the college presidency. She is a graduate of Harvard’s Institute for Educational Management and the American Council on Education’s Spectrum Executive Leadership programs.