Study of CIC CAOs

CIC’s report, A Study of Chief Academic Officers of Independent Colleges and Universities, examines the characteristics, responsibilities, and career trajectories of chief academic officers (CAOs) of the nation’s small and mid-sized private, nonprofit colleges and universities. Using data from the American Council on Education’s The CAO Census: A National Profile of Chief Academic Officers, CIC analyzed the career pathways; demographic characteristics such as gender, race/ethnicity, and age; major field of study; current duties and responsibilities, including levels of satisfaction, time-consuming activities, best and most challenging relationships, and greatest frustrations; and career aspirations, looking specifically at CAOs’ interest in a college presidency. Comparisons were made between CAOs of CIC member institutions and CAOs of four major sub-sectors: public baccalaureate and master’s level institutions, private doctoral universities, public doctoral universities, and public two-year colleges.
Chief academic officers of independent colleges and universities are the principal leaders and managers of the academic programs of the institutions they serve. The core functions of higher education—teaching students, conducting scholarly research, and service to the academic community—usually fall under their purview. In many cases, CAOs serve as the second executive leader of the institution, behind the president, often with oversight of institutional operations beyond the academic program. Despite these important responsibilities, few comprehensive studies have been conducted to examine the characteristics and duties of CAOs, and of these studies, none has focused on the CAOs of the nation’s small and mid-sized private colleges and universities.
Since 2008, the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) has pursued a research agenda to support professional development for leaders of small and mid-sized private colleges and universities. An initial report, “A Study of Career Patterns of the Presidents of Independent Colleges and Universities,” examined the various career routes and characteristics of first-time presidents. Given the earlier finding that presidents of CIC colleges and universities are less likely to have been CAOs than their presidential colleagues serving in other types of institutions (except for presidents of private research universities) and the concern among trustees and search consultants about an adequate pool of qualified candidates for presidential vacancies, CIC is particularly interested in the aspirations of CAOs to the college presidency.
CIC is grateful to the American Council on Education for providing access to data from The CAO Census.
Funder: American Academic Leadership Institute and Academic Search, Inc.

 Key Findings

Some of the key findings of the comparisons of chief academic officers of CIC member colleges and universities with their counterparts in other institutional groupings include:
  • Levels of Satisfaction. Ninety-six percent of chief academic officers of CIC member colleges and universities report high levels of satisfaction in their positions. Despite their high levels of satisfaction, chief academic officers receive little formal professional development for their leadership roles. This is particularly true for CAOs of CIC colleges and universities, with fewer than 30 percent indicating that they participated in formal preparation programs prior to assuming their current CAO role.

  • Length of Current Position. CIC CAOs have served on average only 4.3 years in their current positions, half the average tenure of first-time presidents of CIC member colleges and universities.
    Presidential Aspirations. Fewer than one in four CIC CAOs say that they plan to seek a college presidency, a rate lower than CAOs serving in other types of institutions.

  • Previous Position. One in five CAOs of CIC member colleges and universities served as a CAO in their previous position, higher than all other institutional types.

  • Duties and Responsibilities. CIC CAOs indicate that they spend more time in hiring, promoting, and arranging the retirement of faculty members as well as on the curriculum and academic programs than CAOs of other four-year institutions. They are more likely than other CAOs to teach a course, but are less likely to have tenured faculty status in their present positions. Promoting academic quality and setting the academic vision of the institution are their most important duties, which they say are viewed as priorities also by their presidents.

  • Professional Development Needed for Advancement. For CAOs of CIC colleges and universities who aspire to the presidency, top among the areas where further proficiency is needed include: fundraising, governing board relations, budget and financial management, risk management, and legal issues.

 Contact Information

​For questions about the Study of Chief Academic Officers, contact CIC Senior Vice President Harold V. Hartley III at or (202) 466-7230.