Five Things You Should Know About College Presidents 

The University of Nebraska presidential search received much media attention after University of Nebraska–Lincoln Athletics Director Trev Alberts abruptly resigned on March 13, 2024. Nebraska Governor Jim Pillen issued a “call to action” one day later urging the university’s governing board, of which he was a former member, to “act urgently and decisively” in naming a permanent president. On March 16, the Nebraska Examiner released a bombshell story indicating the Board of Regents had been deadlocked between two finalist candidates, compromising the confidential search process. 

The University of Nebraska Board of Regents announced the designation of Dr. Jeffery Gold, current NU provost and UNMC chancellor, as the priority candidate for the NU presidency on March 21, 2024. Gold has a mandatory 30-day vetting period before he is formally appointed by the board as the university’s ninth president and CEO. According to state law, the vetting period will include public forums at each NU campus to provide the public, including the media and students, faculty, and staff of the University of Nebraska, with an opportunity to meet and ask questions or provide input regarding the priority candidate. 

Here are five things you should know about American college presidents as the University of Nebraska community enters this concluding phase of the search process. 

College presidents are mostly older White men. 

According to a 2022 survey conducted by the American Council on Education, 62% of college presidents who responded to the survey identified as men, and 72% of presidents identified as White. The average age of a president was 60. In 2016, roughly 11% of presidents were 71 and older. Dr. Jeffrey Gold, a 71-year-old White male, mirrors the predominant demographic trends reflected in the modern college presidency. 

The gender and racial imparity of college presidents is problematic since leaders do not reflect American society or the campuses and student populations they lead. For example, data from the National Center for Education Statistics indicates female undergraduate students constituted 58% of the total enrollment in 2021. The same data shows one in five undergraduate students—20 percent—are Hispanic or Latinx, and roughly 13% of post-secondary students are Black. Currently, Asian enrollment sits at eight percent. The U.S. Education Data Initiative reported students from communities of color represent 44% of total college enrollment in 2021. 

The lack of racial and gender diversity in the American college presidency has been a concern among researchers and practitioners for nearly forty years. Four themes contributing to the lack of racial minorities in the presidency include (1) an over-reliance on traditional credentials, (2) a preference toward candidates with traditional career pathways, (2) a lack of infrastructure to support presidents of color, and (4) racial under-representation of governing boards and consultants who are influential in the presidential search and selection process. 

College presidents are leaving their jobs sooner than ever before. 

The average time presidents spend in their current role has steadily decreased over the last 20 years. The average presidential tenure in 2006 was 8.5 years; it was 7 years in 2011 and 6.5 years in 2016. Data from the 2022 American College President Study indicate presidents serve 5.9 years in the role. Nebraska’s last two presidents, Hank Bounds and Ted Carter, both served only 4 years in the role.  

Presidents are leaving their jobs sooner partly because they “must always be on,” as one president told me in a research interview in late 2023. The contemporary presidency requires individuals with administrative and financial acumen, fundraising ability, and political deftness. They must be accessible and responsive but also measured and restrained in an era driven by 24/7 news and social media coverage. They need to balance the pressures of society to improve the “return on investment” of education at their campus as well as manage the pressure from community and political leaders around critical issues such as academic freedom and free speech, among others. It’s exhausting and presidents are struggling to keep up and manage expectations.  

Importantly, though, it is not just burnout and exhaustion causing presidents to leave their jobs early. As Michael Harris and Rachel Ellis found in a study of 1,029 presidential terms across 256 institutions with Division I athletics, there was a dramatic rise in the number of involuntary presidential turnovers from 1988 to 2016. 

College presidents are predominantly recruited by consultants and search firms. 

The use of consultants and executive search firms to facilitate the presidential search process has grown tremendously in recent decades. Scholars note that the use of professional search consultants in higher education was “rare” in the 1980s. Now it’s the norm.  

The University of Nebraska Board of Regents hired AGB consultants to facilitate the presidential searches in 2014 and 2019, and Academic Search consultants in 2024. According to the 2022 American College President Study, presidents indicated they were “most commonly recruited or encouraged to apply by a search consultant or agency.” Roughly 47% of college presidents were recruited or invited to apply for the role by a search consultant, more than any other campus constituency group including members of the governing board (21%) or the past president of their current campus (19%).  

This seems like a logical conclusion. After all, consultants are explicitly hired by institutions to identify and recruit large and diverse talent pools. Yet, it would be wise for boards to pause and reflect on embracing this practice without question. In 1984, Riesman and McLaughlin warned the use of search consultants was not without possible hazards. They cited potential risks including consultants “intimidating inexperienced committee members” and “blackballing candidates” and possessing “minimal experience in the academic and nonprofit sector.” The late Milton Greenberg1, a former university administrator and tenured professor, commented the use “of costly search consultants yields no evidence that a search firm improves the quality or longevity of administrative leaders.” The board decides on who to hire for the college presidency, but consultants have the greatest influence on shaping the nation’s college presidential applicant pool. 

College presidents spend most of their time worrying about money. 

American higher education has reached an inflection point as the student body diversifies, enrollments plateau, and funding volatility grows. Despite accountability and political climates becoming more intense and tumultuous, dollars are the primary focus for college presidents.  

According to the 2016 American College President Study, 65% of presidents cited spending most of their time on budget and financial management, while for 58% most of their time was spent on fundraising. The 2022 edition of the same study indicated 26% of presidents who responded to the survey desired more professional development and training on budgeting and financial management—more than any other area including enrollment management (22%) AI/technology planning (21%), crisis management (20%) academic issues (8%), and athletics (8%).  

Presidents anticipate that state and federal funding will continue to decline or remain flat in the years to come, thus necessitating that many spend most of their time on matters related to fundraising, budgeting, and finance. Many presidents are turning to revenues from private gifts, grants and contracts, tuition and fees, and endowments to fill in the gaps left by receding public support. 

College presidents are more likely to come externally if an open search is conducted. 

Large public institutions like the University of Nebraska used to conduct open presidential searches up until the mid-2010s. An open search process typically involves three to five finalist candidates visiting campus to participate in public forums and interact with students, staff, and faculty. The names of the finalists are publicly disclosed to the media and campus constituents can provide feedback on each of the candidates.  

However, targeted efforts by public universities to repeal or weaken state sunshine laws resulted in a nationwide shift toward closed presidential searches in the late 2010s – including here in Nebraska. Closed searches have become increasingly attractive to institutional hiring authorities and presidential applicants since the process stresses candidate confidentiality. Only one finalist is publicly named in a closed search; names of other applicants or finalists are not publicly disclosed to the media. The prevailing argument for closed searches is that the best presidential candidates are happy where they are and not actively seeking additional job opportunities. Candidates want assurances that their name will not be publicly disclosed unless they’re the sole finalist for the role. They do not want to risk their professional reputation or have their loyalty questioned by constituents at their current campus. According to a comprehensive study conducted by McLaughlin and Riesman in 1990, closed searches accounted for 19% of the searches sampled. In contrast, a 2020 study estimated that 71% of college presidential searches were closed searches.  

Interestingly, researchers at the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information examined 230 presidential hires in 2020. They found closed searches—the same search model that was recently utilized by the University of Nebraska—resulted in external hires 62% percent of the time (103 of 165 searches) while open searches resulted in external hires 74% percent of the time (48 of 65 searches). In other words, internal candidates were somewhat more likely to benefit from a closed search that restricted public competition. The selection of Dr. Jeffrey Gold as the University of Nebraska presidential priority candidate mirrors this trend, having been an internal candidate in a closed search process.  

1Greenberg, M. (1987). Search and ye shall find? The Educational Record, 69(1), 48–51.

Jordan Gonzales is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Department of Educational Administration. He studies the hiring process for top administrators of U.S. colleges and universities. He’s the co-author of Equity-Minded Principles for Presidential Searches in Higher Education