From Teacher to Marketer: The Changing Role of the College President

College and university presidents must increasingly be able to define, tell, and sell their institutions’ story.

By: Chris Romano
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This is the first in a three-part series about the evolution of the role of the college president to that of a marketing expert.

In 2018, the departing chancellor of the University of Texas system, William H. McRaven, declared that being the president of a college or university was “the toughest job in the nation.” And that was before COVID-19. It’s easy to imagine the former military commander feeling stronger about that statement after 2020 and the ongoing pandemic, with its subsequent health crises, logistical nightmares, and steep financial losses for colleges and universities.

2020-21 was a “trial by fire” for new presidents, and the most challenging year for many retiring presidents. Most conversations and headlines since March of 2020 have focused on the challenges to course delivery and institutional finances, but there is another area of looming concern for colleges and universities, wholly unrelated to the pandemic: the leadership crisis at the presidential level. 

Even before the pandemic hit, tenures for college presidents were getting shorter, according to the American Council on Education’s (ACE) 2017 survey of college presidents, and the projected turnover at the presidential level in the next several years was high. That wouldn’t necessarily warrant concern, except that the traditional pipeline of provosts or chief academic officers – traditional stepping stones to the presidency – are opting not to pursue that next step. For over a decade, this trend of provosts not pursuing presidencies has manifested, and we may soon see its fallout.

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The Dwindling Pipeline to the Presidency

In 2008, ACE surveyed 1,715 chief academic officers and found that only 30 percent of those surveyed aspired to the college presidency. Subsequent studies showed that one reason for the low aspirational rate among chief academic officers was they felt that very few responsibilities of their positions overlapped with those of a college president.

Relatedly, in his 2017 book “Higher Calling: The Rise of Nontraditional Leaders in Academia,” Scott Beardsley found that fewer qualified candidates are willing to trade the comforts of academic life for the high-stress demands and constant battling required in this increasingly short-tenured executive role. And as the population of current college presidents marches toward retirement age and the percentage of provosts who aspire to the presidency gets smaller, exactly who will run these colleges in the future is unclear.

But if it is unclear who will helm these presidencies, it is increasingly clear that the skills demanded to run an institution of higher education have changed drastically in recent years; today’s positions carry significantly different expectations than the previous model of a college president. 

The Evolution of the College President

Today’s college president is more of a modern marketer than the esteemed academic of yore. To wit, this year’s annual survey of college and university presidents by Inside Higher Ed asked, among other questions, how institutional leaders planned to increase revenue or cut costs to make up for COVID shortfalls. Nearly all respondents – 91 percent – said they would prioritize cultivating new donor bases; 87 percent said they would request or lobby for additional federal and/or state support; 81 percent said they would pursue grants; and 64 percent said they planned to start or expand a capital campaign. These were five of the six top responses and share one theme in common: Each requires a strong institutional brand narrative to win over prospective funders. And so, here enters the college president in 2021 as Chief Storyteller and Brand Ambassador. 

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A 2017 report by Deloitte Insights illustrated (quite literally, as recreated below) the evolution of the American College president throughout the history of higher education in the U.S.

A visual timeline of the evolution of the role of the college president

The authors of Deloitte’s report show that,  as higher education evolved and grew more complex, so did the role of the president, shifting from faculty member to administrator to builder to accountant – all the way through today’s presidential role as a multidisciplinary leader. The authors posited that this evolution as positive to correspond with the increasing access to higher education, while others have argued that today’s most effective presidents are good people managers. In fact, in Higher Calling, Beardsley reviewed the job description for an ideal four-year college president and concluded that “the ideal president would appear to be a kind of superhuman, combining the traits of distinctive visionary, CEO, politician, innovator, academic, fund raiser [sic], and advanced-analytics marketing expert all in one package.”  

Enter 2021: The College President as Marketing Maven

Even before the pandemic, enrollment was projected to decline for colleges and universities beginning in 2025. One primary reason for this decline was the “birth death” that resulted from the 2008 economic recession – the fact that families began having fewer children in the years after the Great Recession. In his 2018 book “Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education,” Nathan D. Grawe introduced the term “birth death” to capture these declining rates and projected drops in college-going populations across the country as a result of the lowest birth rate in the country in over 30 years. Thus, 2025 through at least 2032 were expected to see steep enrollment drops and corresponding declines in colleges’ primary revenue streams: student enrollment. Those declines have since been revised, albeit modestly, even while the pandemic unexpectedly and prematurely dismantled housing and other auxiliary revenues already expected to decline with longer-term enrollment decreases.

So, perhaps it’s no surprise that presidential candidates need sharp marketing skills: They must understand this competitive environment and position their institutions to be distinctive, because doing so is the key to both retain and gain market share. They must be able to articulate the pillars of their institution to prospective students and, even more importantly, to prospective funders, as presidents must lead their institutions to identify new streams of revenue through friend and fundraising. In the Deloitte report, the authors found that current presidents identified “strategist” as the most important role, followed by communicator and storyteller, fundraiser, and collaborator. Across all of these skills, the ability to tell a story and communicate a common identity and purpose – that is, a brand –  is consistent. Successful presidents will be able to do this effectively and across various mediums – including social media. 

Today’s presidents will, as a result, rely heavily not just  just on talented marketing teams, but also key college constituents such as boards of trustees, presidential transition teams, and senior cabinet members tasked with advising, onboarding and engaging with new college presidents. 

In the next part of this three part series, I will delve into what today’s new presidents say future presidents need to succeed. Those recommendations inform not just how those presidents will do their marketing-dependent jobs, but on how marketing and communication should position themselves to onboard any new president. 

Chris Romano

Chris Romano

Dr. Christopher Romano is the Vice President of Enrollment Management and Student Affairs at Ramapo College of New Jersey. He earned his Ed.D. in Interdisciplinary Leadership from Creighton University, his Ed.M. in Higher Education Administration from Harvard University and his B.A. in International Relations from Saint Joseph’s University. Dr. Romano’s high energy level is routinely noted by his colleagues – to this end, he is no longer permitted to consume caffeinated beverages during the work day.

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R. Scheeler
R. Scheeler
21 days ago

It has been my experience to see this type of transition in the business world happen decades ago. A large chemical company that I worked for was headed for generations by descendants of the founding family. Also, as the product line expanded, it became evident that this line of succession was not practical if the company was to survive and grow. Hence, the boards of directors sought out engineers as the presidents of the company. In the 1980’s this path was found to be less effective in those competitive times. So, for the first time, the president of the business… Read more »

R. Scheeler
R. Scheeler
20 days ago

Part II As we know, marketing requires a two-pronged approach. In this case, you are marketing the college to potential students and, conversely, marketing your college to potential donors. The first strategy that I can think of is to actively follow the career moves of the alumni. This can tell you what industries are being supplied by your college which tells you where to solicit donations. The benefit of donating is apparent. This is also a tool to actively court potential students by informing them which industries they can reasonably expect to gain employment. Ultimately, this will impact the college’s… Read more »


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