The Chief Academic Officer: A Transformational Model

Regardless of the size or location of an institution, it is the rare college president today who spends more than 40 percent of his or her time on campus. Most tell us they are spending at least 60 percent either off-campus or dealing with external stakeholders as friend-raisers, fund-raisers and chief financial and marketing officers. This new“business” model means that college presidents are functioning mainly as corporate CEOs. They are charged with developing an institutional vision and selling it to external constituents, leaving the day-to-day internal functions of the institution in the hands of the chief operating officer (COO). This approach has transformed the role of the chief academic officer on some campuses as both the COO and the chief academic officer (CAO).

More often, the CAO is being afforded the title of executive vice president, provost or senior vice president. In these corporate models, he or she is identified as the COO with responsibility for most internal functions of the institution. Under this scenario, the college has three line officers: the vice president for financial affairs (chief financial officer), the vice president for development (chief development officer) and the CAO. Also, the director of inter-collegiate athletics and director of institutional research report to the president, but in a staff rather than a line relationship. The model results in both academic and student life functions reporting to the CAO.

This business practice has guided many small liberal arts colleges without jeopardizing their unique academic missions. It has also enabled them to view educational institutions through the twin lenses of the two primary canons of American colleges and universities, The AAUP 1940 Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure and The 1966 Statement on Governance of Colleges and Universities.

The new organizational model places more importance on the role of the CAO as a transformational leader. Small college CAOs report that they often have deans with varying responsibilities reporting to them. Many Washington, D.C.-based organizations offer workshops to assist the CAO in responding to this new approach. Additionally, the following is occurring:


  • • CAOs today display an institutional perspective today that was not there five years ago and is much different than that of 10 years ago. In response to these new challenges, CAOs are turning out in record numbers for special continuing education programs geared at providing training in everything from budget management to e-learning to fund-raising. In addition, the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) offers programs for the CAO spouse. The Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) also offers a program on fund raising for the CAO.
  • • A number of summer programs such as Harvard’s Summer Institutes and Carnegie Mellon’s Program for Senior Administrators are being offered to better train CAOs in budgeting, executive team building, strategic planning, and to prepare them for presidencies. This skill is critical because often the CAO is left to chair the senior staff meetings and essentially run the institution while the president is off-campus cultivating resources.
  • • CAOs are interacting more closely with board committees and the full Board of Trustees. As a result, organizations such as the Association of Governing Boards (AGB) now report that they are conducting workshops and sessions on the CAO’s role in dealing with volunteer leadership.
  • • Colleges are increasing their scrutiny of individuals who will fill these positions. Executive search firms nationally are reporting increased usage of their services to find the right person.


In today’s keenly competitive and volatile marketplace, higher education must scrutinize its mode of operation that is both urgent and impatient. In recognition of these new realities, the CAO of tomorrow must be resilient, yet persistent, with an overdose of genuine optimism. By adopting this expanded CAO role-extending far beyond tradition-small institutions with limited resources will help to ensure that external stake-holders receive the attention they deserve, while internal functions are well-managed.



Dr. Marylouise Fennell, a former president of Carlow College in Pittsburgh is senior advisor for the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) and annually lectures on this subject at the CIC Chief Academic Officers Institute.



Dr. Scott D. Miller is president of Wesley College in Dover, DE. Now in his 14th year as a college CEO, Dr. Miller was an executive vice president before becoming a president.



Both write, lecture and advise college boards and presidents on organizational issues.

About the Authors

Dr. Marylouise Fennell, RSM, a former president of Carlow University, is senior counsel for the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) and principal of Hyatt Fennell, a higher education search firm.

Dr. Scott D. Miller is president of Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk/Virginia Beach, Virginia. He was previously president of Bethany College, Wesley College, and Lincoln Memorial University. He is chair of the Board of Directors of Academic Search, Inc. and serves as a consultant to college presidents and boards.

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