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August 01, 2012 11:00 AM The CEO College President?

By Daniel Luzer

The path to a college presidency is a complicated one. While most college presidents come from academia the job itself is curiously very, very different from being a professor. Presidents are usually people who started out as scholars but gave it up long before they took office. Administrators, after all, are not rewarded for research, writing, and teaching, but largely for raising money and keeping highly complication institutions running smoothly.

As the finances of academic institutions become more complicated academics increasingly don’t want to become presidents.

According to a piece by Inside Higher Ed’s Kevin Kiley, this means in the future major academic administrators might come from the ranks of schools business managers. He explains:

With business and academic decisions becoming increasingly intertwined, and both the roles of chief business officers and presidents expanding to encompass a different array of responsibilities than in the past, individuals here have begun to make the case that the CFO’s office might be a better training ground for the top job.
“Historically, presidents have come from the academic side of the house, but the public is more frequently viewing higher education as a business, desiring leaders with a bottom-line mindset,” wrote Patricia A. Charlton, senior vice president and chief of staff at the College of Southern Nevada, in a pamphlet discussing changes in the role of CFO over the past 50 years. “Internally, with budgets changing along with fluctuating enrollments and funding, a president with a strong financial background who understands the day-to-day flow is advantageous.”

One might think this bottom-line “viewing higher education as a business” is a trend college administrators should actively resist but, well, money is important. And colleges need it.

One problem with this line of thinking might be that college’s chief business officers aren’t historically terribly good at stabilizing and improving college finances, not to mention the other aspects of academic life.

A 2010 report by the Tellus Institute cautioned that college business officers’ enthusiastic efforts to put college endowments into high-risk, high-return, illiquid investments made it difficult to understand the risk of many university investments. This meat that when the real estate market collapsed in the last decade many colleges suffered huge financial problems, which destabilized not only the universities themselves, but also the economies of the regions in which they’re located.

Only about 7 percent of current college presidents earlier served as chief business officers.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer