The Changing Role Of The President In Higher Education
©2001 Judith A. Rile

edited 11/19/18


The role of the president has changed since the start of the first "colleges" in the United States. As a part of their profession, the job fell to members of the clergy, who served as teachers and disciplinarians to teenage boys sent to learn a profession and contribute to society. Economic and social demands changed the role from teacher to administrator in the early 1900s, as the president dealt with administrative issues to ensure survival of the institution. Today's college presidents do the same, friend-raising and fund-raising for the institution while overseeing a very complex organization. What will be the role of tomorrow's president with the changing student body and method of delivery of education in a new technological society?


Harvard historian Samuel Eliot wrote in 1848 that the American college had become an ivory tower, " ... from which the president emerged as a figure of tremendous power, power which he did not always use well, but power that was nonetheless his by virtue of it not belonging to anyone else". (Rudolph, 1991, page 167). In the 1800's the role of the college president and the power of that office was very different than the president of in the 1900's. Changes in higher education over the past decade and as we begin the new decade will bring more changes to that position in both role and power.

The role of the college president also takes on different meaning based on the type of institution involved. The role of Graham Spanier, president of the Pennsylvania State University, is very different from that of Lawrence Mezzino, president of Alvernia College, which is different from Madeline Wing Adler, president of West Chester University. These differences range from type and size of institution to geographic location, administrative structure and control and type of student body. This essay looks at the changing role of the office of the president on a general nature and does not focus on any one type of institution. Issues involving gender and the differences in power based on gender are not addressed.


With the establishment of the first nine coUeges in the New World, the most important person of the institution was the college president (Schmidt, 1930). He was the greatest educational force encountered by the students, serving as head disciplinarian, teacher, confessor and spiritual counselor, father and a role model for the young men in his care. (Schmidt, 1930). Remembering the establishment of the first "coneges", most were a repository for young men to learn a profession, primarily the ministry, to serve the growing population of uneducated in the new world. The president was like the head of a boarding school, with influence that was swift and direct. He would meet the train of new students at the start of the session and help them settle in. He would preside at the head of the table at mealtime and hear recitations. The president taught the controversial subjects that other faculty would not teach, such as ethics and political economics. He preached at chapel, sometimes also leading services in the local community to augment his income. According to the historian Frederick Rudolph (1990), the conege president was most likely a member of the clergy. It appeared that being the president of a college was a by-product that was acquired by being a member of the clergy. (Schmidt, 1930)

The title of the position varied at different institutions - president at many, but also known as rector, provost, principal or chance1lor. These titles came from the English and Scottish influence on higher education. Even though many of the customs from the old world were transferred to the new, the evolution of the role of head of the institution began to grow into a new position by the start of the 1800s. The increasing size of the college added new duties to the office. A writtenjob description for the president at Princeton University in 1802 including such things as presiding over faculty meetings and executing their decisions; presiding at academic ceremonies, including commencement; arranging for daily prayers and weekly worship, and lecturing on Christianity; visiting the classes of other instructors and offering support; and promoting the general interests of the college. In some cases, he was also the farmer of the institution's lands, reaping the fruits and vegetables and other wares grown on the land by the students. (Schmidt, 1930). But whatever the title, the role was still the same: primarily a teacher and role model and to a lesser extent, an administrator.

The president's relationship with the board of governors or trustees was secondary. For the most part, the overseeing boards became less involved with the day to day operations of the institution, leaving the president to serve as the expert advisor and as liaison between the board and faculty. This was a much more independent role than that served by their counterparts in the homeland. (Rudolph, 1990; Schmidt, 1930). With the development of "non-resident contror' by the trustees, the president's power grew. He was no longer the "senior" among the faculty. He was now a representative of the governing board "and a signiticant power in his own right". (Rudolph, 1990, page 167) As representative to the board, the president was still accountable for civic pride, church support and community development. (Thelin, 1994) The president's power was designated in very general terrns. The actual range was a matter of interpretation. (Schmidt, 1930).

The economic and social changes to the United States in the mid to late 1800s forced change in higher education and to the role of president. The Industrial Revolution forced many smaller colleges to close (Rudolph, 1990) yet also provided revitalization to others who could adjust their philosophy of education to meet the needs of the new economy. Some of the newer institutions changed their curriculum from the classics and philosophy to a more scientific nature. The job of the president now included more complex issues as the institution itself grew and became more complex. (Schmidt, 1930). The president began to get involved in the recruitment of students and the formal establishment of different curricula and raising funds for the library. He still had teaching responsibilities and supervised the daily life of the student in addition to the ceremonial duties... and he was still expected to preach on Sundays. More than one president succumbed to the pressures of the job: Bishop Simpson resigned the presidency... completely worn out. For as he himself stated, teaching and governing were the least of his labors. There was the unending round of preaching and lecturing, besides the practical questions that constantly arose. Finance, law, real estate, bricks and mortar - the president must know them all.(Schmidt, 1930, page 63)

Practically, the president's duties evolved into three areas of problems: administration, supervision and instruction. It was difficult to do it all well, dealing with the current demands but protecting the inherited traditions of the system. With the change from an agrarian to an industrial society, those surviving colleges changed their curriculum to serve the needs of society. (Schmidt, 1930) Curriculum had to be reviewed regularly along with other proposed activities in view of popularity with the new market economy. (Thelin, 1994) This new system meant more students, more faculty, a greater breadth of curriculum and new methods of teaching, new buildings, and as a result of all of this, more administrative problems. (Schmidt, 1930)

The growth brought a need to unite and control the varying areas of the institution. The 1900's brought a more formal organization to the administrative structure of the college. The supervision of students came under the auspices of a dean. Classroom instruction became the responsibility of specialists in each academic department. The president was expected to have strong financial skills, have organizing ability, and be able to build morale; however, scholarship was still important. But as the new century began "the teacher and the patriarch was giving way to the business executive" (Schmidt, 1930, page 10 1). Into the twentieth century, the faculty were seen as the employees, the trustees as the employers, and the president was seen as the superintendent of the plant. (Rudolph, 1991). With the increasing complexity of the institution because of growth, college administration was being changed from a profession to an art. (Schmidt, 1930).


The 1960's brought turbulent times to the colleges and universities in the United States. This period was not an easy time for the person in hoidding the title of president of the institution. The financial crunch of decreasing tuition revenue and increasing costs of the 1970s and 1980s did not make it any easier. (Nason, 1980). Demographic changes in the typical college age population have presented their own challenges to colleges and universities in the 1990s. As the population of the country becomes more diverse and the cost of higher education continues to rise, institutions are faced with smaller pools of traditional students who can afford higher education and seek to enroll in college. (Bryant, 2000)

The role of the president in the modem day institution has turned to a primarily administrative role. That role of the modem president of the college or university can vary from institution to institution. Size of the student body, the type of institution and its supervisory structure (private or independent as opposed to publicly funded and supported), the programs offered (associates, bachelors or graduate and professional studies) geographic location (metropolitan, suburban, or rural) and historical background all influence the role of that institution's president.

While the occasional president can still be found in the classroom or pursuing academic scholarship through research and writing, many see the college or university as a business because of the "never ending quest for money" (Wiseman, 1991, page 5). Bottom line and accountability is seen as the primary fimction as the most significant issue that the president addresses; as a result, many administrative duties are delegated to subordinates. (Wiseman, 1991). Friend raising and fimd raising through the interactions with friends and alumnae of the college, local community leaders, legislators and government officials and philanthropic foundations reign as the primary responsibility of the president today.

Despite the change from educator to administrator, the role of the president is still seen as the most powerful and influential individual in the academic community. To the external community, the president represents the institution and its values, and leads the institution in its contributions to the community. Internally, the president is expected to direct and control the complex institution and all of its branches. (Nason, 1980; Wiseman, 1991)


The old time college president (prior to the 1900s) had power and authority based not so much in his abilities but based primarily on his position. As a member of the clergy in a society that looked to the ministry for leadership, his authority over the institution was recognized by faculty and students. The governing body gave him broad latitude, subject only to interpretation on an as-needed basis (Schmidt, 1910).

The modem president is said to not have as much power as did his predecessors because time is spent on fund raising and not in the area of academic leadership. The growth of special interest groups, including students and faculty, have taken power away from the presidential office (Wiseman, 1991; Keller, 1983).

Does today's college president have power? Does today's college president have authority? Power has many definitions, depending upon the use. Pfeffer (1992) defines power as "the use of force" (page 12). Fisher (1984) cites several definitions in relation to the presidential role, summarizing all by equating power with influence.

College presidents employ different kinds of power. Coercive power, the kind involving use of threats and punishment to gain compliance, is said to be the least effective for the college president. (Fisher, 1984). Colleges of colonial times were run using coercive power. Discipline, not learning, was the focus of the institution and the president. (Rudolph, 1991). Reward power is the ability of one individual to accomplish goals and behaviors through the use of favors, recognition or rewards to the individual. The college president uses reward power to recognize those individuals within the organization that support the mission and goals of the institution. Faculty receive tenure as a reward for strong teaching ability and academic expertise. Expert power recognizes the knowledge and expertise possesses by an individual. (Fisher, 1984) In early days, the president exerted expert power as the trustees and overseers relied on the knowledge and skiffs of the president to oversee the institution. (Schmidt, 1930). Charismatic power is based on admiration and liking. (Fisher, 1984). The paternal college president who served in the parental role, providing guidance and counsel to his students, possessed charismatic power.

Legitimate power, probably the most common type, is based on a group's acceptance of common beliefs and practices, which includes influence. The group accepts the leader who fits the roles consistent with the group's beliefs. (Fisher, 1984) Fisher acknowledges Pfeffer's claim that legitimate power can be equated with authority because the end result of legitimate power is to influence others to do something that may not normally be done. (Fisher, 1984).

How does power relate to the role of the college president? In colonial days, the college president possessed legitimate power through the virtue of his ministerial background and paternal oversight. Charismatic power enhanced his role. He acquired expert power from the overseers who looked to the president for guidance. The modem day president may not have the charismatic power with the employees of the organization. Expert power, in a specific area of expertise such as strategic planning, curriculum development, financial management or fund raising, may be granted, but more often those areas are led by professionals who handle the daily operations of those areas.

While all of the types of power are important to the college president, the most important is legitimate power. Legitimate power is of ftmdamental importance to the college president because it is accepted by the college community without regard to resources, charisma, rewards or punishments. Legitimate power tends to stay in place until abused or ineffectively used by the leader. Having legitimate power allows the president to focus on the needs of the institution while allowing the group to pursue individual responsibilities in support of the institution as a whole. The president can lobby politicians for funds or visit with alumnae to increase financial support because the deans, administrators and faculty are continuing the education process for the students.


Since the founding of Harvard in the 17th Century, higher education has been viewed as professors lecturing to students in ivy-covered halls. The role of the president has evolved from paternalistic overseer to administrator to fundraiser over the past two hundred years. The 2 1 ' century has now arrived, bringing with it major changes to society that can bring just as big a change to the delivery of higher education that happened in the late 1800s with the Industrial Revolution.

The population of traditional college students is dwindling and is being replaced by a cohort of adults who are seeking the college degree. They are enrolling in special adult-oriented programs, at times tripling the institution's enrollment. They have special educational requirements and deal with issues not normally addressed by the typical teenage college student. Many attend classes at satellite locations; some may never even set foot on the college campus.

The United States is becoming more ethnically diverse. Early census data released by the U.S.Census Bureau from the 2000 census shows the Latino population growing twice and three times as much as other ethnic groups. This new group will be looking for higher education and training within a few short years. While academically capable of handling college-level work, many come unprepared for the discipline of learning because of poor study skills, lack of support and language deficiencies. Many colleges and universities are not currently capable of addressing their needs.

The delivery of education through distance learning programs is also changing the face of higher education. Web-based and web-enhanced courses, video-conferencing and other uses of technology are changing the way students learn. In some programs, the entire degree can be earned without leaving the home.

What will the role of the president be as these changes affect our colleges anad universities. Will the role or the president return to that of parent or counselor? Will financial issues become so great that professional fUndraiser will become part of the necessary experience on the president's resume'? Will there even be a need for a chief executive officer for the institution, with administrative responsibilities becoming so professionalized that only a figurehead position is needed to preside over the ceremonial rites?


Bryant, P. 2000. Enrollment management proposal presented by Noel-Levitz, February 2000 to Rosemont College Enrollment MarketingCommittee.

Fisher, J. L. 1984. Power of the President. New York: American Council on Education/MacMillan Publishing Company.

Keller, G. 1983. Academic strategy: The management revolution in American higher education. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Nason, J. 1980. Presidential search: A guide to the process of selecting and appointing college and university presidents. Battle Creek, Michigan: Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

Pfeffer, J. 1992. Managing with power. Boston, Ma: Harvard University Press.

Rudolph, F. 1991. The American college and university: A history. Athens, Ga: University of Georgia Press

Schmidt, G. 1930. The old time college president. New York: Columbia University Press.

Thelin, J. 1994. Campus and commonwealth: A historical interpretation, in Higher education in American society. Third Edition. Edited by Altbach, P., Berdahl, R. and Gumport, P. New York: Promotheus Books.

Wiseman, L. 1991. The university president: Academic leadership in an era of fandraising and legislative affairs. Found in Managing institutions of Higher education into the 21" Century. Sims, R. and Sims, S., ed. New York: Greenwood Press.