The Chronicle of Higher Education Almanac Issue Is Out (So A New Academic Year Must Have Begun)

If Capistrano’s swallows’ return is the harbinger of spring, then the annual publication of The Chronicle of Higher Education Almanac 2015-16 heralds the start of a new academic year. Chock full of graphs and charts and replete with statistics and data, the Almanac affords even a casual reader ample information about American higher education.

We learn, for example, that Sarah Lawrence College can claim the dubious honor of being the most expensive private institution in the country at $65,480 and that the difference between Number 1 and Number 100 - Rhode Island School of Design at  $57, 234 – would almost cover the cost of employing three adjunct/part-time instructors, each to teach a three-credit course (albeit, one presumes not at any of the 100 most-expensive private colleges).

Given the angst associated with getting into college, it may surprise some readers to find out that nearly 73 per cent of this year’s freshmen class claim to have been accepted by their first-choice institution. Moreover, almost 87 per cent of the class expect to graduate in four or fewer years, a rather sharp contrast to the actual percentage in the 50s after six years.

With the 2016 presidential election already well underway and replete with politicians’ laments on the economic plight of the middle class, learning that the average salaries of full, associate, assistant, and new assistant professors at four-year colleges are, respectively, $100,087; $77,729; $67,881; and $69,096 may offer scant comfort to anyone, particularly those whose household income in 2013 was at or below the median value of $51,939. And faculty have to take into account that the average number of years spent earning a doctorate (but not much in the way of salary) is 7.5.

But as comprehensive as the Almanac is, its value may also be akin to the clue to The Hound of the Baskervilles; namely, that the dog did not bark. So, absent from the Almanac∗ is any discussion or data bearing on the issues of consensual sex in college, intercollegiate athletes and local law enforcement, and the apparently dramatic increase of student demand for psychological counseling services on campus. 

In addition, change comes slowly to higher education and the Almanac depends to a large degree on the data collected by other organizations, many of which operate in the same methodical and careful manner as do most colleges and universities. For example, a rather new addition to the Almanac is a list of institutions with the highest percentage of online-learning only undergraduates in fall 2013. Online-learning has been around (and debated over) for at least 20 years and the Chronicle had to undertake the analysis of U.S. Department of Education data to produce the findings they report in the Almanac and one suspects DoE has not been collecting these particular data for very long at all.

But the availability of such data and the reporting of them in the Almanac are noteworthy because they reflect the growing acceptance of on-line learning as well as the pervasive spread of its use. The reader familiar with the rancor of the debate over this teaching-learning format may not be surprised to find smaller, less well-known public institutions such as the University of Minnesota at Crookston or Eastern Oregon University among those with a high percentage (45.9% and 39.1%, respectively) of students enrolled on-line courses only.

Perhaps more surprising are the universities that make up five of the seven highest-ranking public four-year institutions with a large percentage of students studying exclusively on-line: Colorado State University Global Campus, Penn State World Campus, Arizona State Skysong, City University of New York Graduate Center, and University of Maryland University College. Their percentages of on-line learners range from 100 percent to 82.6 percent.

It will be interesting to note in future issues of the Almanac if capturing and analyzing data about enrollment in on-line courses continue, or, as may well be the case, treated as enrollment, period.

But what does the Almanac have to report that can inform the work of a search firm specializing in higher education?

While our firm does not focus on presidential searches, we share with many faculty members the same, almost licentious curiosity about what the heads of universities earn. Faculty salaries (see above) most likely contribute to some rueful mutterings within the professoriate who peruse presidents’ earnings. Were it not for knowledge of the stratospheric compensation paid corporate CEOs, we too might shake our heads at what academic leaders earn.

In any event, presidential compensation does have a trickledown effect on the salaries of provosts, CFOs, CIOs, and deans and we have observed the effects in our searches to fill those positions at research universities. The Almanac generously provides us with data on the salaries of these other positions.

The Almanac’s data for the compensation of presidents and chancellors at private universities also includes the number of years each of the 100 listed have served as the chief executive officer of their current institution. The number of leaders with 10 or more years in the job is conspicuous and suggests to us that the next few years are likely to see (finally) the departure of the many Baby Boomers now in their mid- or late- 60s or their 70s. For some time now, many of us have anticipated the generational change of leadership in higher education, but there has as of yet been no leeming-like leap into retirement. That time may have come.

The length of tenure of some sitting presidents gives us pause as to the accuracy of our sense that the academic enterprise is entering a chapter in its history when the status quo and tradition may have to give way to change and major change at that. What’s more, the change may have to be led by a president who – however respectful of tradition and protocol – is an agent for change. 

Most recently, the Regents of the University of Iowa appear to have sought out a new president precisely for the purpose of effecting change and selected as president a person with no background in higher education but, instead, a career with a major corporation. Before the Regents’ decision, academicians, the campus chapter of the American Association of University Professors, and a union of graduate teaching and research assistants all expressed deep concern that someone with no background in higher education would even be considered, especially given the academic backgrounds of three other finalists for the presidency.

In response, the Board’s president said "What we ended up with is someone who has spent his life providing leadership in organizations that he has been a part of, in terms of collaboration, in terms of team building, in terms of reaching out to disparate groups and involving them and developing a strategic plan on how you can get better. The board saw in that leadership skills which was exhibited after being in the private sector."

In turn, the Faculty Senate threatened a vote of no confidence in the Board of Regents.

Something similar took place when Purdue’s governing board selected Mitch Daniels as president in 2012: students protested, departures of key academic leaders were attributed to the presidential appointment, and alumni voiced outrage. Mr. Daniels remains president of Purdue and does indeed seem to be a catalyst for change.

The jury, it seems, remains out on the matter of who and how much change can be made to an institution that, after all, dates back to the Middle Ages. The Almanac and its annual reports on the state of the academy suggest that change can be made to happen, but the extent of change is likely incremental. And incremental is most likely the rate at which change will take place in the near future. Hence, the lesson we learn is to recruit candidates for provost, vice president for research, CFO, CIO, and deans who acknowledge the need to change but also the limits of tolerance for change within most universities. 

The Almanac is a reminder that colleges and universities are, on one level, places in perpetual motion in which the inhabitants’ activities are usually disconnected from one another, what March and Cohen described more than 40 years ago as “organized anarchy.” 

But on another level, the Almanac serves to reassure that higher education institutions are remarkably resilient places that persist in spite and perhaps because of the disconnectedness of much of what goes on within them. After all, almanacs are annual reports that draw heavily on the past in order to describe the present. Save for the Farmers’ version, few almanacs attempt to foretell the future.


Rick Skinner, Senior Consultant

September 2015


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