How to Become a University President

The best path for becoming a university president is relatively straight forward: teach at the university level, then make the move into leading a department, and work your way up the administrative ladder from there.


But this line of work isn’t for everyone. To truly succeed in this line of work, you’ll need more than an ideal resume.


You’ll need to have excessive amounts physical, intellectual and emotional stamina, the ability to stay composed in the face of tremendous pressure, the courage to make unpopular decisions, and skin thick enough to stand by them.


If you’re interested in meeting hundreds of interesting people, promoting big ideas, and affecting the lives and futures of countless students, then this will be more of a calling than a career choice.


So if that’s the case, read on below; we’ll tell you how to get into this field, what it will take, and what you’ll be doing when you get there.



Experience You’ll Need

The path for becoming a university president is a relatively straight forward one, in terms of the education and experience you’ll need to qualify for the job.


Track 1 - Teaching: The primary method is to teach, then get on the tenure track, become a department chair, and rise up the administrative ladder to chief academic officer, dean, provost, vice-president or another such position. 


Track 2 - Operational Administration: It is also possible however (although much less common), to take the non-academic route, and start directly in university operations administration in areas such as admissions, student services, financial aid, accounting, and other areas. The same ‘ladder-climbing’ strategy would apply if taking this route.


Track 3 - Coming From the Outside: It is extremely rare to be hired into the job from the outside, as presidential search committees tend to be wary of individuals who don’t fully understand and appreciate the culture of a campus. This strategy is not recommended.


Success Tip: A search committee for finding the next president of a university develop an extensive list of experiences they're seeking in an ideal candidate. The best way you can check those boxes is by coming up track 1; the traditional academic career route.



Education Required

To take the educational route, you will need a master’s or a Ph.D. in your subject area. If taking the administrative route, you will likely need to supplement any previous education you had with a master’s or Ph.D. in a field such as education administration/leadership, or a similar field.




Skills & Traits Needed for this Profession

No that you have an idea of how you potentially get into this field, you'll need to know if you a well-suited for work in this field. It takes a very specific type of individual to succeed in this field, it is a 24/7 commitment like few others. A career as a university or college president would be very, very demanding. 


If you’re someone who enjoys relaxing, takes your time to properly prepare meals, and you have a wide array of time-consuming personal hobbies, this may not be the field for you…unless of course you’re willing to change all of that. Regardless, to do this job effectively, you will need the following attributes (without them, your experience and education won't count for much):


• You can “take over a room”; you exude passion, urgency and confidence

• You’re willing to ensure that the institution acts with integrity and honesty

• You are capable of showing appropriate due diligence and empathy during times of crisis and tragedy

• You are willing to interacts with hundreds if not thousands of people on a daily basis through e-mails, speaking engagements, receptions, events, and meetings

• You know how to carefully listen to problems, and act with composure

• You have a high emotional intelligence to be able to read people

• You are able to connect to others without getting overwhelmed or paralyzed by the numerous issues confronted on a daily basis

• You have the ability to cope, to stay centered, to know your own emotional limits (this can make all the difference)

• Although this isn’t a discipline-specific job, you must be able to relate to, understand, and appreciate all disciplines within the institution

• You must be able to communicate effectively with the board members, donors, lawmakers, community members, parents, students, staff and faculty

• You ground your actions in strategy, devoid of personal interests and passions




Details of this Profession: General Job Description 

As a university president, you would be responsible for providing management and control over the activities, affairs, operations, business and property of your institution. With so much responsibility, and an extensive set of duties (listed below), your time would be on call each hour of every day.



General Job Duties

This field is notorious for having no two jobs being the same. However, regardless of the functions that are different from job to job, you could generally expect to be responsible for the following as a university or college president:


• Overseeing the general direction of the business and financial affairs of the institution

• Performing long range budget planning

• Directing and coordinating institutional development programs including fundraising, public relations and government relations

• Being accountable for legal affairs and actions in all areas of the college or university having to do with the institution itself or its employees acting as agents for the institution

• Overseeing the recruitment of academic and administrative professionals

• Overseeing the general administrative direction of all support areas of the University

• Overseeing facilities operations and auxiliary services

• Giving speeches to a wide variety of constituents (students, parents, faculty, staff, alumni, donors, law makers, etc.) 

• Responding with agility to new opportunities for the school, such as hiring new researchers or developing new programs

• Frequently attending student events, such as athletic competitions, theatrical performances, art exhibits, fundraisers, and other events 



Salary Level of University Presidents

The salary level you could earn as a university or college president can vary, typically depending on the following factors:


• Your professional qualifications (your level of relevant education, experience, etc.)

• The size and budget of the employing institution 

• Whether it is a public or private institution

• The region in which you work

• The scope of your job duties and functions

• The type of remuneration package you are offered (such as if you are entitled to bonuses, financial and non-cash benefits)



Salary in Canada

According to the Ontario Public Sector Salary Disclosure (via MacLean’s), the 2012 salaries of 34 university and college presidents in Ontario ranged from $144,827 to $479,600 per annum. Elsewhere in Canada, for the 2014/15 year, the base salaries of various university presidents are listed below:


• University of Alberta - $549,000 (with non-cash benefits it’s closer to $900,000)

• University of Calgary - $473,000

• University of Victoria - $350,000

• Simon Fraser University - $328,870



Salary in the United States

In the United States, the salary figures can be amazingly high for those in charge of private colleges and universities, and still well above modest for those leading public institutions. 


Private Universities and Colleges: According to a report by the Chronicle of Higher Education (via the TxProf Blog), the median salary level of university and college presidents in the 2014/15 year was $436,000 per annum. The report also notes that 32 presidents earned more than $1,000,000 that year in total compensation - which includes include base pay, bonus, deferred compensation paid out, and severance. The top earner brought in $4,615,230.


Public Universities and Colleges: According to the same report, the salaries for public institution presidents ranged from $175,504 to $1,494,603 per annum for the 2014/15 year.



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Typical Day as a University President

If you were to become a university president, your obligations would be many, your workload would be heavy, and your free time would be sparse. Your typical day would begin at 7:00 a.m. or shortly thereafter, for a breakfast meeting, and wouldn’t stop until the middle of the evening, likely well after 7 p.m..


You could expect to be spending your workday, which would include good part of your weekend, traveling to meetings, conferences and donors’ homes, attending school events (such as sporting events, plays, fundraising events and art exhibitions), addressing faculty and staff, making phone calls, and replying to or sending emails.


Somewhere in between, you’ll have to find time to read and consider reports, contemplate strategy and vision, ensure institutional fiscal health, and prepare for speeches and events. You need to have a lot of physical, mental and emotional stamina for this profession.



Similar Occupations in Our Database

Listed below are occupations in our database that have similar responsibilities, and/or require similar skills, or are in the same sector of industry, as University President:


• Administrative Director

• Chief Executive Officer (CEO)

• Dean

• Director of University Admissions

• Education Programs Administrator

• Mayor

• Superintendent

• University or College Administrator

• University Professor



References for This Career Guide

The following resources were drawn from in the preparation of this How to Become a University President career guide:


• “Why Become a College President.” Mitchell, Dr. Brian C. (February 16, 2014). The Huffington Post. Retrieved July 19, 2016.

• “The President’s Many Roles.” Bowles, K. Johnson (July 1, 2013). Inside Higher Ed: Career Advice. Retrieved July 19, 2016.

• “Here’s What Ontario University Presidents Made in 2012: Head of Western Highest Paid.” DeHaas, Josh (March 29, 2013). MacLean’s. Retrieved July 19, 2016.

• “Canadian University Comparators.” (n.d.). The University of British Columbia: Board of Governors. Retrieved July 19, 2016.

• “College and University President Salaries, 2013.” Caron, Paul L. (December 7, 2015). TaxProf Blog. Retrieved July 19, 2016.

• “Salaries of Private College Presidents Continue to Rise, Chronicle Survey Finds.” Saul, Stephanie (December 6, 2015). The New York Times. Retrieved July 19, 2016.



Relevant Scholarships

The Applicable Majors section below shows fields of study relevant to a career as a university president. You can search for scholarships matched to that/those fields of study on the following pages:


Economics Scholarships

Education Scholarships

Management Scholarships


Success Tip: Be sure to apply for any scholarships that you even barely qualify for, as there are millions of dollars of scholarships that go unused every year due to a lack of applicants!



Applicable Majors

Studying one of the college/university majors listed below are quite relevant to the work of a university president. Click on the links to find out what else you can do with these majors!


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