A President’s Priority List

By Zachary Smith, PhD

As higher education emerges from the Covid-19 era and all its tremors and tribulations, presidents (under advisement from their trustees and leadership teams) are recalibrating and rethinking what they want to prioritize as they lead their campuses into a brave new era. Mid-way through another academic year, what issues should be top of mind as we head into 2023?

While there are an incalculable number of challenges and issues that a campus leader might choose to prioritize – from risk management to student safety to upheaval in the athletics landscape – those listed below are areas that I believe need immediate and undivided attention. These issues are frequently raised when my colleagues and I work with boards in the recruitment of new presidents. Trustees crave leaders with expertise in these areas.

The following is by no means a comprehensive list but rather items that I believe should be at the top of any president’s current agenda.

  • The bottom line. Institutions are understandably nervous about the future, especially in the face of headwinds from a struggling economy and a faltering stock market which has diminished endowments. A recent Forbes ranking of 905 colleges gave 539 (60%) a “C” rating and 226 schools a “D” grade, indicating colleges are struggling financially. Raising tuition is no longer the cure-all for budget challenges as families have little stomach to pay more for an education. Even at schools that are flourishing, presidents must get creative and entrepreneurial as they assess new revenue streams, uncover operating efficiencies, partner with business and industry and especially take a market-driven approach to developing new academic programs that respond to student interests and market demands. Furthermore, fundraising is absolutely critical for today’s presidents, and boards I speak with often highlight the ability to solicit donors as one of the things they cherish most in a president.
  • Enrollment. Boosting admissions, one way to address the bottom line, isn’t the slam dunk it once was. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center indicates that 662,000 fewer students enrolled in undergraduate programs in spring 2022 than a year earlier, a decline of 4.7 percent, while NCES data show that undergraduate enrollment has declined 9.4% since the pandemic began. Today’s presidents must invest in their enrollment departments to successfully mine for new students and, as noted above, capitalize upon market-driven programs that shore up the student body. With shifting demographics, these students may come from adult learners (many of whom left college without a degree) or from groups traditionally underrepresented in higher education, writes Karin Fischer in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Unfortunately, Fischer adds, not all colleges will be able to grow their way out of their current struggles. Some institutions will need to get comfortable with the idea of an enrollment contraction and find other ways to sustain themselves.

Presidents must also build morale among their enrollment teams. A soon-to-be-published WittKieffer survey of chief enrollment management officers found that just 58% were optimistic about the future of their profession, as compared with 83% pre-pandemic. To address this challenge, presidents will need to invest resources in their enrollment teams while taking a personal stake in formulating enrollment strategies.

  • Faculty and staff morale and retention. The pandemic may be waning but faculty and staff are still feeling the ill effects of a few exceedingly difficult years. According to CUPA-HR, more than half of higher education employees are either somewhat likely or very likely to seek new jobs in the near future. Presidents must find ways to motivate and inspire their campus teams in an effort to find meaning and purpose in their work again. This means reaffirming the importance of the institutional mission while also improving working conditions.

Many faculty and staff feel burned out by the sheer scale of change they’ve seen in the past few years. For this reason, today’s presidents must appreciate change management and understand how individuals need time and support as they adapt to new priorities and ways of working. In an ACE blog, Jason Lynch of Appalachian State University argues that faculty, staff and students have experienced real trauma of late and thus administrators must take a “trauma-informed approach” to leadership. Strategies include cultivating safety, promoting empowerment and nurturing empathy among one’s colleagues. 

Finally, it is critical that presidents recommit themselves to the ideals of shared governance and work closely and collaboratively with faculty and staff toward solutions to today’s most pressing challenges. Giving people a meaningful say in their futures goes a long way toward maintaining campus spirit and engagement. Faculty and staff certainly might not agree with all of a president’s key decisions but they will respect them if they have been given a voice during deliberations.

  • Student success. In the post-pandemic era, boards are looking for presidents who are serious about student success. This includes narrowing the achievement gap and helping underrepresented student groups improve graduation rates and success metrics experienced by all students. For example, today’s leaders must identify ways to help students with food and housing insecurities get the basic needs they require to thrive in school. They must also provide resources for students to successfully transition to and thrive in the university environment. Holding up a degree because a student failed to pay a $50 graduation fee is no longer acceptable. Today’s leaders need to find ways to remove roadblocks, improve systems and processes and ultimately help students effectively and efficiently matriculate through college.

Furthermore, stress and burnout are preventing many students from achieving their goals. In a Gallup-Lumina study, emotional stress was cited as a key reason that an inordinate amount of students are considering taking breaks from their studies. Presidents must find ways to improve conditions for students as a means of improving morale, increasing resiliency and aiding recruitment and retention. These leaders shouldn’t hesitate to enlist their boards in helping to design creative strategies around student success.

  • Diversity, equity and inclusion. Colleges and universities have historically been at the forefront of creating welcoming environments where diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives are a high priority. However, events of the past few years have put DE&I at the top of presidential priorities. Constituents across campus – and especially students – demand a leader who is fluent in matters that pertain to, for example, race, class, religion and gender, and who can foster an environment that is welcoming to everyone. “As president, you are expected to walk the walk of DE&I, not just talk the talk,” writes Sheila Edwards Lange, chancellor of the University of Washington at Tacoma. “That means you will need an actionable plan and path for moving the institution forward that is inclusive and responsive to where it and the surrounding community are willing to go.” Presidents must continue to make abundantly clear that DE&I is an “institutional priority that is integral to mission fulfillment,” she adds.
  • Communicating the value of higher education. Presidents need to do a better job of articulating the value of a college degree. We’re in an era in which skepticism runs high and, as noted, many students (and families) are forgoing a college education. Yet according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a higher education degree still more than pays for itself over the course of one’s career. Those with bachelor’s degrees earn nearly twice what high school graduates earn, with PhDs earning roughly three times as much. Not everyone is hearing this. “Americans may be hearing the opposite message — that college is not the golden ticket to a good job in the new, high-demand labor market,” writes Fischer of the Chronicle. While refining their institutions to meet the needs of tomorrow’s students, presidents must continue to broadcast the message that higher learning is inherently valuable and that an academic degree is still the path to a better, more fulfilling life – and the foundation of a civil society.

There are innumerable challenges that today’s presidents face. In speaking with presidents and their boards across academia, I have found the above challenges to be the most pressing. Presidents who address them with commitment and intentionality will be those who are positioned for future success.