Big Cash on Campus

Christoper Cullen,  Managing Director, Infinia DC (Guest blogger)

The annual compensation survey for college presidents is out again, which generally sets off some discreet campus murmuring and a significant surge in the use of personal email accounts on university servers. More than 36 university presidents make more than a million dollars. This is, however, not a problem to focus on. There is nothing objectionable to universities hiring and compensating their leaders as business professionals; it is though decidedly objectionable when a university leader, who is compensated similarly to a commercial CEO, still conducts university business like the school’s top academic versus its chief executive.

The contemporary university president’s job is to create crystal clear guidance for direct reports, a supportive foundation for success, and an agenda focus for all staff members. Of course the president must raise money, burnish the institutional reputation, grow constituent engagement, yes, yes, yes. But these initiatives must always begin with a clear-eyed vision for the future and a compelling, differentiating ideology and rigorous, audacious case statements for philanthropy:

A coherent communications platform.

Too often it seems our campus chiefs are mixing it up with the undergrads in some “humanizing” photo opportunity endeavor. That’s nice, and a wonderful way to make your web site an unbearable self-promotion medium. These activities are immaterial to any real institutional strategy and a distraction. Today’s president has to set the stage for the university’s future, like the commercial CEO, make hard decisions and invest in the brand. The time is now more than ever for courage in the hot seat to make programmatic changes, make business model changes, communicate differently.

A university CEO needs to focus on these questions:

What business am I in?

Is my business growing or contracting?

What exactly do we do at this university and how?

What do I do differently (better) here than my competitors?

How do we (should we) engage with our constituents?

These are positioning and branding questions. Every successful commercial CEO fully embraces these disciplines; there is no tiptoeing around the terminology. The higher education category writ large has a comprehensive branding problem: “is it worth it, why does it cost so much, aren’t they all the same, why would I pay more?” Executives should be scrambling to manage the fallout, but in general it’s business as usual at most campuses. Yet, as any good CEO knows, in any category inflection there is also great opportunity. Business-as-usual CEO’s get fired when the category gets turned upside down. Many BAU university presidents get their contract extended for not making any big mistakes.

So congratulations for these very bright and accomplished scholars who have achieved a pinnacle in higher education, and you have earned your right to be paid like a CEO. However, for those presidents that are happy to take their 2015 salaries and direct 1975 business-as-usual universities, they are mortgaging their futures while living in the past.

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