Let’s Choose College Presidents on the Merits

An American Council on Education report suggesting otherwise should be ignored.

Leaders of higher-ed institutions have extremely important roles, shaping not only their colleges but also the workforce of tomorrow. The position of college president requires an incredible work ethic and a variety of skills, and individuals who fill those roles should be selected on the merits. Sadly, the American Council on Education (ACE), like many today, seem to believe otherwise: that race and gender are far more important than a straightforward ability to do the job.

ACE recently released its latest American College President Study (ACPS), the ninth iteration of the report and the first since 2017. The self-declared goal of the ACPS is to “capture important data on [college] presidential demographics, search and selection processes, career trajectories, and duties and responsibilities—with a focus on the intersectional lenses of race and gender.” Reported data are gathered using a survey, to which more than 1,000 college presidents responded last year. Survey questions range far and wide, concerning race, gender, age, path to the position, and experience with the hiring process, among other topics.

There is no particular reason why exemplary college presidents must be “diverse.”As with much contemporary “research,” equity is the name of ACE’s game. The study’s authors are clearly upset that college presidents are, on average, older, whiter, and male. According to this year’s executive summary, “the population of current presidents [is] still not representative of the students served.” Indeed, the average president’s age is 60, men outnumber women two to one, and 72 percent of presidents are white. While wokesters often bring up race and gender “inequity,” it is somewhat surprising to see age stressed. True, 60-year-old presidents are not “representative” of their 18-22-year-old students. But what is the alternative? Presidents possessing the same age and wisdom as the students with whom they are entrusted?

The response here is obvious: Why do college presidents need to be “representative” of student populations? Don’t presidents need merely to be good at their jobs, leading universities? Exemplary leaders need to possess communication skills, problem-solving abilities, intelligence, and the ability to focus on the big picture. There is no particular reason that exemplary presidents must be “diverse” (and, for some reason, young as well).

As previously stated, a particular area of focus in the ACE study is that college presidents are more often male than female. But this is the case in many sectors of the economy. The authors seem to take it for granted that women are being shut out. Yet, frequently, it is simply the case that women and men have different work-life priorities, as has been widely discussed elsewhere. This is not society’s “fault” but a result of the fact that women and men are free to make their own decisions.

In any case, college presidents should be chosen for their capabilities, not their immutable characteristics. This is particularly true because characteristics like race and gender do not actually affect one’s ability to do the job. Individuals should be assessed and chosen for the position of president—not sexes, not age categories, and not racial groups.

Grace Hall is a communications assistant at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. She works and lives in Georgia.