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A Generational Rift

A college president stopped by my office recently for a visit. That’s not unusual. A handful come to The Chronicle every month for discussions with reporters and editors. What was unusual about this visit was the president’s age: This leader was under 50.

College presidents have been getting older over the past two decades; the average age of those in the top job rose from 52 to 60 between 1986 and 2006, according to the most recent survey on the college presidency by the American Council on Education. (Those findings are now a bit dated. But the next version of the survey, scheduled for release in the spring, is expected to show a similar trend of aging presidents.)

Almost half of presidents in 2006 were older than 60, compared with 14 percent of presidents in 1986. Only about 8 percent of presidents were 50 or younger, compared with about 42 percent in 1986. For the sake of comparison, the average age of a corporate CEO is 55.

The graying of the presidency is even more pronounced at the nation’s leading research universities. Take a look at this graphic that accompanied a Chronicle article recently: Of the 60 presidents listed, one is in his 40s, about a dozen are in their 50s, and the rest are in their 60s or 70s.

I asked my visitor why there are so few presidents in their 40s and 50s. “The older baby boomers don’t want to give it up,” the president said.

Higher ed is about to enter a period of profound change in the decade ahead. Just this week, Education Secretary Arne Duncan called on college leaders to “think more creatively—and with much greater urgency” about ways to contain costs and reduce student debt. Rising costs remain the No. 1 issue on college campuses, but a host of other problems will confront leaders in the near future: getting more students to complete a credential, increasing the academic rigor of some programs, and finding new ways to prove what students learned in the classroom.

The question remains whether this generation of college presidents, who in some ways contributed to the myriad problems facing colleges today—especially on cost, are in the best position to lead innovation in the future.

Perhaps we at least need more age diversity in the ranks of college presidents, especially more leaders in their 50s who can remain at an institution for 10 or more years and have time to learn about the place and see needed changes through. Too often we have presidents who come into office, immediately embark on a new strategic plan, and then leave a few years later (giving way to a new president who starts the process all over again). Add a lame-duck year or an interim presidency into the mix, and it’s a recipe for stalled institutional momentum.

Freeman A. Hrabowski III, who in 1992 at the age of 42 became president of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, agrees that too many presidents these days “jump around” from job to job. Based on his experience of working with the next generation of college leaders, he believes they’ll be more willing to plant roots on certain campuses.

But Hrabowski, now 61, disagrees that older presidents are unable to drive innovation. He maintains that an experienced president has learned the skills needed to work with various constituencies on campus. “Don’t equate age with the lack of ability to be creative,” he says. “Clearly people are living longer and healthier. I have been with a number of people who are innovative and wise because of the experience they have had.”

Some argue that the average age of college presidents will naturally drop when the current crop retires and is replaced by a new generation. “It’s cyclical,” says Holden Thorp,  chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who is 47.

Yet we know from various reports that the pipeline to the presidency is drying up as those in jobs that traditionally led to the president’s office don’t necessarily want to move up. Many presidential search committees still require that candidates for the top job make the expected stops along the career track, such as department chair, dean, or provost. In the sciences, achieving such markers at a young age is particularly difficult, argues Thorp. “You’re in your early 40s by the time you get your first major grant as a faculty member,” he points out. So those individuals might not even start on the administrative track until that stage in their life.

Another issue is that academe, in general, is graying, meaning that there are fewer younger academics securing jobs in the first place and then getting on a career track that leads to leadership positions.

Across campuses, the wave of retirements that was predicted several years ago is not coming to fruition. A big reason is that the economy tanked since those predictions were made. But another reason is that retirement for baby boomers is more emotionally charged than it was for earlier generations, and as a result, those employees don’t follow expected patterns. Even discerning a pattern has become more difficult with the elimination of mandatory retirement for professors in 1994.

The results of a survey of academics released this week by Fidelity Investments had this worrisome finding: 68 percent of older faculty said they will delay retirement or never retire.

The bottom line is that aging academics are potentially blocking job opportunities for younger scholars. That’s the view of Peter Conn, a professor of English and of education at the University of Pennsylvania. Writing in The Chronicle Review last year, Conn estimated that 3 to 4 percent of the professoriate at colleges are over 70, well past traditional retirement age.

At the University of Pennsylvania—the only place for which I can get more or less exact and timely data—we have gone from having no faculty members over 70 in the School of Arts and Sciences, 15 years ago, to 28, or 7.3 percent of the 383 tenured faculty members, in 2010. And the median age of tenured faculty members has risen to 55. Seven-plus percent is a substantial proportion, especially since each of those senior citizens is arguably blocking at least two assistant-professor slots.

Academe needs to figure out ways to diversify the age of its ranks, or it risks fostering similar tensions to the ones we’re seeing now over class in this country as younger academics get the sense that there’s little room on campus for them.

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