Expanded Chief Academic Officer Roles Require New Models

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Dr. Marylouise Fennell
Senior Counsel
Council of Independent Colleges

Dr. Scott D. Miller
Wesley College

Higher education has become progressively more competitive, forcing ever more institutions to adopt and apply best business practices to thrive. For presidents, the “business” of higher education consumes increasing amounts of time.

Regardless of the size or location of an institution, most college presidents today tell us that they are spending at least 60 percent of their time off-campus dealing with external stakeholders including friend raisers, fundraisers, and chief financial and marketing officers. This new “business” model means that college presidents are functioning mainly as corporate CEOs, charged with developing an institutional vision and selling it to external constituents, leaving the day to day internal functions of the institution in the hands of the chief operating officer.

This new business approach? has transformed the role of the chief academic officer, who on some campuses becomes the chief operating officer (COO) under this model. Perhaps Eric Erickson was talking about chief academic officers when he said, “I ain’t what I ought to be. I ain’t what I’m going to be, but I ain’t what I was.”

More often, the chief academic officer (CAO) is being afforded the title of executive vice president, provost or senior vice president. In the new corporate model, he or she is identified as the chief operating officer with responsibility for most internal functions of the institution. This model results in all academic and student life functions reporting to the CAO.

This new organizational model places more importance on the role of the CAO as a transformational leader. Many Washington, D.C. – based organizations now offer workshops and institutes to assist the CAO in responding to new institutional demographics. For example, The Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), offers a program on fundraising for the chief academic officer.

In addition, a number of summer programs such as Harvard’s Summer Institute and Carnegie Mellon’s Program for Senior Administrators are being offered to better train CAOs in budgeting, executive team-building and strategic planning. This skill is critical, because often the CAO is left to chair the senior staff meetings and essentially run the institution while the president is off-campus cultivating resources.

Because CAOs need to interact more closely with board committees as well as the full Board of Trustees, organizations such as the Association of Governing Boards (AGB) now report that they are conducting workshops and sessions on the CAO’s role in dealing with volunteer leadership.

These increased expectations of CAOs have resulted in the need for more scrutiny during the search process; some presidents have even turned to the Registry of College and University Presidents for transitional assistance.

This business approach has guided Wesley College — and many other small liberal arts colleges — without jeopardizing its unique academic mission. In today’s keenly competitive and volatile marketplace, higher education must be driven by a scrutiny of its mode of operation that is both urgent and impatient. By adopting this expanded CAO role – extending far beyond the traditional confines – small institutions with limited resources will help to ensure that external stakeholders receive the attention they deserve, while internal functions are well managed.

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