School presidents report they need more training around nonacademic duties

School leaders are calling for more support and training in areas such as overseeing their collegiate athletic programs in order to avoid burnout.

American college and university presidents face more challenges than ever before, from external political pressures to the demands of multimillion-dollar athletic programs. At the same time, their average tenure is shrinking, and school leaders are calling for more support and training so they don’t burn out, according to the latest survey of college presidents by the American Council on Education (ACE).

A university building situated near a university athletics field.
Image: iStock/Cheri Alguire

Presidents now serve an average of 5.9 years, down from 8.5 years in 2006. And more than half of the presidents surveyed said they planned to step down within the next five years. The survey results also revealed areas where these leaders—most of whom come from academic or administrative backgrounds—struggle the most.

“More than anything, presidents are managing change,” says Julie Wollman, a professor of practice in the Policy, Organizations, Leadership, and Systems Division in Penn’s Graduate School of Education and an expert on educational leadership. “Higher education is undergoing a massive transformation to thrive or survive.”

In the ACE survey, presidents said they need more training and support to be more effective across disciplines, citing examples like budget and financial management, external communications, entrepreneurial ventures, and fundraising..

Wollman said she often teaches how leaders can rely more on their boards and the expertise of their members, for example. Continuing professional development is another way to keep up.

Presidents usually have minimal interaction with the athletics department until they take a top position, and there’s a lot to learn, says Karen Weaver, a former Division I coach and adjunct assistant professor at Penn GSE. Weaver leads a four-month program certificate program focused on leadership and collegiate athletics.

“As a leader, if you want to move on and move up, you can’t ignore athletics. It is a huge driver of so many things in the institution,” says Weaver, whose second book on the business of college sports will be released next year.

Read more at Penn GSE.