In the 2017 American Council on Education study on the college presidency, a large majority — 61% — lamented that there's "never enough money" to do their jobs effectively. College presidents are expected to fundraise, find ways to drastically cut from the bottom line while maintaining a high quality product, keep tuition low while public funding is also at an all-time low, and find ways to innovate and present a competitive advantage to attract a dwindling pool of students to campus. In the same survey, 65% of presidents said they spend a majority of their times on budgeting/financial management, and 58% spend a majority of their time fundraising. In addition to managing money, there's a myriad of other responsibilities of a college president — St. Charles Community College in Missouri lists 112 of them. From community and government relations to academic issues and student affairs, managing accreditation and board relations to strategic planning and enrollment management, a college president must be enterprising, forward-thinking and in touch with the needs of a number of stakeholders.
Despite all of these things, and a remarkably high rate of turnover in the college presidency, there a number of leaders who are not just staying afloat, but leading the way on their campuses. Here are our four-year college leaders to watch in 2018 and beyond (note: community college leaders are recognized on a separate list in April):
Sharon Gaber, President, University of Toledo
When public institutions in Ohio announced last year they’d found $1 billion in cost savings, the University of Toledo was highlighted in particular for its savvy with advancing cost-reform plans, specifically around consolidated purchasing and salary structuring. Undoubtedly, Sharon Gaber, an economist with a background in city and regional planning, is at least partially to thank.
As a provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of Arkansas prior to her arrival at the University of Toledo, she led efforts to target student attendance as a retention strategy. And Toledo’s first woman president, whose research interests include community needs assessment of marginalized populations, Gaber has honed in on student success in her first two years at the helm of the university.
Harold L. Martin Sr., Chancellor, North Carolina A&T University
From athletics, and a football program that recently won its bowl game after an undefeated season, to surging enrollment and a nationally recognized engineering program, North Carolina A&T is bucking the doom-and-gloom rhetoric surrounding higher education at large, and historically black, colleges and universities in general. And if you ask a number of his presidential peers “who’s the one president no one is really talking about, but they should be,” Martin would be a favorite pick.
In 2014, Martin proposed a plan to the University of North Carolina Board of Governors to enroll more out-of-state students to boost enrollment at NC A&T. System universities must admit at least 82% of their incoming freshmen from North Carolina, but Martin wanted permission to increase the out-of-state enrollment cap to 25%, focusing heavily on students with an interest in STEM fields, with no cap engineering school enrollment. With the additional tuition dollars, he planned to re-invest in programs that would support scholarships and additional recruitment and retention efforts for in-state students. The plan was approved, and the school is thriving, seeing record enrollments in a climate in which many institutions are reporting declines.
Becky Takeda-Tinker, President, Colorado State University—Global Campus
Becky Takeda-Tinker is becoming a leader in policy discussions around online learning. And as president of one of the nation's few fully-online state universities (there may be a growing trend towards this model; California Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed a bill authorizing an online state community college), she is perfectly positioned to provide thought leadership on the subject. She is also a big advocate for using data in innovative ways to not only demonstrate, but create value for students, and is leading efforts to collaborate with alternative credential providers, which we see as one of the leading trends for 2018, to re-imagine the way adult learners are served.
Likewise, Takeda-Tinker is heavily involved with the local PK-12 district, as a member of the District Accountability Committee for the Douglas County (CO) District, and she serves as leadership vice chairman and board member of the South Metro Denver Chamber. Her involvement is the perfect example of the need for college presidents to be involved from the cradle to the workforce to make sure students are getting everything they need from higher ed to participate fully in society.
Bob Fisher, President, Belmont University
In an August editorial in the university’s student newspaper, Belmont University President Bob Fisher was lauded for his leadership in definitely condemning hate and setting a tone of no tolerance on incendiary behavior by students on campus. After saying the university’s enemies are “ignorance, disrespect from anyone, hate, bigotry and prejudice” in an August campus address and expelling a freshman student for posting “a violent and racist Snapchat” the previous fall, Fisher earned the respect of students while underscoring the Christian university’s emphasis on inclusion.
In a climate in which college presidents find themselves ousted over a lack of response to racial incidents and protests on campus, and in which still others face criticism for being out of touch with students, the ringing endorsement of Fisher by students serves as a reminder that learners not only make up an institution's largest constituency, but they are also perhaps the most important cog of the higher ed business model.
Ruth Simmons, President, Prairie View A&M University
Ruth Simmons is the first female president of Prairie View A&M University -- the latest in a long line of firsts for the former TIME Magazine best college president recognition. She has served as an administrator at esteemed institutions Princeton University, Spelman College and Smith College -- where, as president, she instituted the United States’ first engineering program at a women’s college -- before making history as the first African-American president of an Ivy League institution when she took the reins at Brown University in 2001. She was responsible for implementing need-blind admissions at the prestigious university, and led a $1.6 billion fundraising effort.
Simmons, who initially only planned to serve as Prairie View’s president on an interim basis, saying she was “old” and “tired,” is gearing up for her third act as a college president, inspired by the determination of the students on campus to “better themselves,” according to a recent article in the Texas Tribune. Her focus is on recruiting the nation’s top researchers to join the faculty, as the institution looks to grow its enrollment by 33% over the next three years.