Making the Leap from Advancement to Academia

Today’s college and university presidents are called on to do more than manage an institution’s day-to-day operations. They’re public speakers, cheerleaders, public relations pros, and, increasingly, advancement and development officers. Because advancement efforts take up so much of their time, according to The American College President Study 2017, people who have dedicated a significant portion of their career to fundraising and all that comes with it have an edge in these positions. Lindauer CEO Deb Taft joined other search firm experts and presidents to talk about this shift for “Advancing to the Top,” a story in Currents magazine by Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) Vice President of Marketing and Communications Rob Moore.

Taft has seen search committees increasingly take financial expertise into account when screening candidates, and for good reason. “Most colleges and universities are the major economic drivers in their community, and advancement leaders are uniquely positioned to stand at the junction of the institution and its external audiences — they’ve been operating there for years,” she said.

With more and more presidential positions expected to open up as current presidents retire, finding the right fit is increasingly important. Here’s what a strong candidate’s profile might look like today and why advancement professionals stand out:

  • For institutions that are facing pressure related to revenue, demographics, or public perception, a nontraditional candidate may be ideal.
  • However, those who lack a background in academia may need to work harder to gain the trust of faculty. James T. Harris, President of the University of San Diego, compares this process to cultivating relationships with donors.
  • Financial and marketing pressure is high, so candidates who know how to manage an enterprise stand out. “Every time you set a new level of achievement, that becomes the new norm, and people expect you to surpass that,” said Gonzaga University President Thane McCulloh, who has a background in student services.
  • Candidates who also have experience working with volunteer leadership and boards of directors are particularly exciting, as university and college presidents will need to do the same.

“My enrollment management and financial aid background is extremely helpful,” said Margaret Drugovich, President of Hartwick College. She uses it to ensure that her students get the financial aid they need to have a rich college career, while not neglecting the college’s other financial priorities.

While the most common path to the presidency still runs through academic affairs, with former deans and provosts typically rising to the top, advancement officers with the right background have nothing to worry about if they aspire to a role in higher education.

“You have to build a career portfolio, get experience in various areas around the institution —participate in tenure and promotion reviews, take part in curriculum assessment, involve yourself in student affairs,” Taft said. “To be successful, you’ll need exposure to a wide variety of activities in order to speak deeply and thoughtfully about the institution as a whole.”