Growing A President – A Personal Journey, the path less traveled

davisson tom-1By Tom Davisson February 10, 2020 – Who and how a person becomes a university president has always been something of an enigma, and what are their day-to-day activities? The answer is generally as varied as the number of presidents. Here are some profile facts from the 2017 American College President Study from the American Council of Education.

The fact is a modern-day President comes from a wide variety of career tracks, and the position is highly demanding and stressful, which requires the ability to navigate the internal and external worlds addressing students, parents, faculty, industry, politicians, media, and a wide variety of funders. It is not surprising the average tenure of a President is declining.

So why does one aspire to such a time-consuming, and often strenuous position, and what path does one take to achieve such a position? Historically a President was usually filled by a member of the faculty. Since most colleges/universities were started to increase the knowledge of the population, it made sense that members of the academy would be best suited to lead the institution. Occasionally non-faculty would ascend to the position through alternate paths, but that was an exception.

Today we are seeing the model change significantly. As the chart below shows, faculty is still the top recruiting ground however alternative pathways are now routinely used. External candidates such as politicians, business leaders, fundraisers, and marketing professionals are often finalists, as are academic administrators and Dean’s.  The thinking is that the position is not as academically related as it was previously, and new skill sets are now needed. Skills such as fundraising, lobbying, public relations, recruiting, and management skills are critical to a president’s and university’s success.


There is an internal administrative avenue that is often overlooked, and that is the Student Services track in which only 5% of the current President’s held a senior student services position. I can speak personally of such a journey.

Each President has their own unique journey to the position, here is my path. I was a first-generation college student from a lower-income family from a small town in Ohio.  I began my studies at the University of Rio Grande in Ohio in 1968 and graduated in 1972 with a degree in secondary education. While I did have plenty of emotional support from my family, financial support was minimal. Thank goodness for student loans, institutional scholarship dollars, and on-campus employment was available. I was a residence hall counselor for room and board, worked in the bookstore for free used books, a sports editor for the college newspaper, and worked at a local restaurant for free food and pocket money. For many first-generation college students having to work multiple jobs and be a full-time student is a normal way of life and has been that way for generations.

I say this as it laid the groundwork for my professional career. After working for the state on workforce training programs, I was hired by a national higher education organization. I started in the student services area. The position was responsible for student housing, student activities, helping students find p/t employment, etc. I found student services, something I really loved to do.  The majority of trustees and faculty have little understanding of student services and its complexity. Students’ issues range from fear of failure, problems at home, financial, mental health and student services officers are on the front line.

I was fortunate my career path came from this area in which I received promotions become a Dean of Students before moving to an Executive Vice President and eventually a President.

As Dean of Students, I became aware of how little authority I had to make needed changes. How was I going to tell faculty or Registrar to do something I felt needed to happen to help a student? I had the responsibility of assisting students to overcome their obstacles and complete their educational goals, but I had little authority to make needed changes. I was very naïve! So, what was I to do? This is where I began my journey of learning how to request not demand, to implore not threaten, and to be patient. I had to learn to “sell,” not “tell” people. That skill, I was to learn, was going to be one of my best friends throughout my 47-year career in higher education. It allowed me to move up the organizational ladders to VP, SR. VP., Exec. VP. C.O.O., and President.

When finally reaching the position of President, I found these skills to be as, if not more, important than my Student Services days. While I did have the administrative authority to direct people to do my “bidding,” working in Student Services taught me it is much better to “sell” than simply “tell”! Letting people in on the “why,” and allowing them to help me find the “how” has been one of my best tools over the years. These same skills transferred into the new areas of fundraising and the political arena. As a President’s time is split between the issues of internal and external and the experience of a well-rounded leader provides a foundation for success.

That critical lesson was ingrained in me during my Student Services days. So, as Boards of Trustees and search firms look to fill this key position, I strongly recommend they not overlook the answer that may be right in front of them, their Student Services Department.

So, if you are considering a path to a Presidency, think about Student Services as one-stop along that journey. If you are now a President, or in senior leadership, don’t overlook your leaders in your Student Services area. They can give you great insight about your students and their thinking that could help you learn where and how to find more students just like them.


Tom Davisson is a Partner with Edu Alliance Group, Inc a international higher education consultancy firm. He recently retired from Sullivan University System as 30 years, as Executive VP and COO. Prior to joining Sullivan, Tom was President of DeVry University DuPage and Area President of all DeVry Chicago area Campuses.

Tom is one of the leading experts in the area of higher education institutions, bridging the gap between education and the workforce. He has served on and chaired visiting committees for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Colleges both in the US and in 5 other countries. He is a Trustee Emeritus the University of Rio Grande in Ohio.

Tom has more than 47 years of experience in senior higher education administration experience. He also serves on numerous non-profit boards.

Presidential Tenure and How it Intersects with Philanthropic Success

Judy WierJudyth Wier is a 26-year fundraising professional working with not-for-profits and institutions of higher learning. She is a member of the Edu Alliance Advisory Council.

Presidential tenure must be one of the things that keep any President awake at night. The length of time a person is President of a university is decreasing at an alarming rate.

Let me cite an example of where I graduated, Auburn University. The president was Dr. Harry Philpott who served for 15 years from 1965 until 1980. The President before him for 18 years was Dr. Ralph Draughton. Since 1980, 8 others served as president until the most recent President Dr. Steven Leath selected in 2017. This works out to an average tenure of 4.62 years for each of the presidents from 1980-2017.

While 4.62 years seems like a short time for a President to serve, Louisiana State University from 1980 to 2017 had 13 presidents (including interim’s) for an average of 2.84 years. A significant percentage of presidential tenures nationwide come to an end after three to five years.

The American Council on Education’s (ACE) report, “The American College President 2017,” found that college presidents served an average of 6.5 years in that position compared to a 7-year average in 2011 and 8.5 year average in 2006. According to American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) data covering the past five years, presidential tenure lasted four years or less for 44.9 percent of member institutions. Only 26.9 percentage lasted 10 years or more.

“Fundamentally, the reason why tenures are shorter is because the agenda for leadership is so dynamic and is changing more quickly than it was in the past,” stated Lucy Leske, a senior partner with Witt/Kieffer’s Higher Education Practice. Fundraising and coalition-building have become a significant part of the university president’s job description.

Presidents are being asked to set a vision and motivate a wide variety of constituent groups, some with competing interest, to help in its implementation. The president must gain their trust to impart the whys and end results of implementing his/her vision. These constituent groups include university leadership, board of directors, faculty/staff, alumni, business, and community leaders. Is the average tenure of 6.5 years enough time to assess the culture of the university, develop a vision, gain constituent trust, and implement?

Numerous research articles show that developing a vision and motivating constituents of this vision is a primary responsibility of the president. They also show that successful fundraising is a critical component. Financial strength – endowments and alumni giving – are dependent upon the ability of president to seek and bring in philanthropic dollars.

In the last ten years there has been a growing list of challenges that has changed the job description for a university president. No longer is the domination of academic leadership at the forefront. We now intersect financial stability and growth of the university with staying the course of mission. As there is movement away from seeking out academic leadership in a president to one of vision maker/fundraiser. We are seeing changes to who is applying for these positions and who is being hired.

In the past decade the following have impacted this intersect of vision making and fundraising versus academic leadership at universities:

  • decreased state funding
  • lower enrollment
  • decreasing international enrollment
  • limited access to student loans
  • increased emphasis on transformational leadership
  • cost to attend college vs. increase in median family incomes

Can we realistically ask for success by university presidents with average job tenure of 6.5 years?

Successful fundraising is heart to heart relationship building. A president must spend time with prospects in building a relationship that may lead to a philanthropic impact gift. It starts at the top.

According to the 2013 study by The Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy titled: Million Dollar Ready: Assessing the Institutional Factors That Lead to Transformational Gifts in Higher Education “Longer presidential tenure is associated with higher numbers of million-dollar-plus donations. An institution with a president in office since 2000 tended to receive a higher number of million- dollar donations during the study period of 2000-2012, holding other factors constant.”

For this process to be successful he/she must spend the time. It is not a “one and done”, nor is there a way to rush this process. It is a genuine investment of time. My experience with university and college presidents is that they spend 35% of their time on fundraising. It is a daily activity. Most were on a learning curve, willing but not yet able to lead a fundraising campaign

Dr. Jessica Kozloff, Senior Consultant with Academic Search and President Emerita of Bloomsburg University Pennsylvania, cites change management research which overwhelmingly show that in any organization, five years is the minimum time required for anyone in an executive leadership position to make a positive impact on the organization they are charged with leading.

Short tenures do little to establish a true sense of security within the university. They also leave little time to follow through on the vision established when the president first arrived on campus. For success there must be a process to develop personal relationships, effectively communicate the vision, and establish trust that leads to engaged supporters.

Over the last decade the financial challenges of our public and private universities and colleges have moved the leadership position to be filled with those who can create and articulate a vision, develop trust, engage in the growth of the institution’s endowment, and increase the percentage of alumni giving.

While university presidents have traditionally come from positions within academic fields, this is changing. With University boards increasingly looking for candidates that can fundraise we must ask if presidents are prepared for this task if it has not been a part of their professional experience. I believe fundraising is a hands on experience. It takes experience to know when the time is right for sitting across from a multi-million dollar donor and agreeing to their gift parameters.

Are we in that transitional moment where direct experience as a fundraiser may overtake the past trend of a President coming from the academic administration ranks? We shall soon see with the selection of the next generation of higher education President’s.

Judyth Wier is a 26-year fundraising professional working with not-for-profits and institutions of higher learning. Nineteen of those years were spent in leadership roles that included planned giving, marketing, fundraising, management, external communications, and strategic planning. Her higher education career includes serving as Vice President for Institutional Advancement at Cottey College in Missouri, Chief Fundraising Officer for the University of New Orleans, Louisiana, Executive Director of the Advancement Louisiana State University of Veterinary Medicine, and Associate Vice Chancellor University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

The school is the last expenditure upon which America should be willing to economize. ~Franklin D. Roosevelt

Additional Article Sources

American Council on Education. Spring Supplement 2012. “The American College President Study: Key Findings and Takeaways”. Bryan J. Cook.

American Association of State College and Universities. 2017 Summer. Public Purpose. “The Erosion of Presidential Tenure”. Karen Doss Bowman

“University Presidents and the Role of Fundraising at Private Liberal Arts Universities.” 2016. Dissertation by Greely Robert Myers, Walden University.

“The Relational Effect University Momentum Has on Philanthropic Support”. May 2016. Dissertation by John D. North. Olivet Nazarene University.

cropped-edu-alliance-logo-square1.jpgEdu Alliance is a higher education consultancy firm with offices in the United States and the United Arab Emirates. The founders and its advisory members have assisted higher education institutions on a variety of projects, and many have held senior positions in higher education in the United States and internationally.

Our specific mission is to assist universities, colleges and educational institutions to develop capacity and enhance their effectiveness.

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