May 19, 2024

Who’s Writing the Op-eds?: The Presidents Behind the Words

The database continues to grow. I’ve now amassed roughly 350 opinion pieces by college and university presidents that have been published, on line or in print, so far in 2014. I’ll put content issues under the microscope in the coming weeks, but right now, let’s look at who’s writing those op-eds.

Just a few days ago, I posted a comprehensive list of the presidents represented in the database (with links to all op-eds by the top 14 in number of published pieces for the year). It’s an extraordinary group. Here are some demographics…

Sector: Even with intense outreach to all sectors for published op-eds and an ongoing search across all media, private college and university presidents dominate the collected opinion pieces. Still, public four-year institutions are well represented, with community colleges being the smallest segment. (I’ve chosen to exclude tribal colleges and for-profits, but have seen virtually no op-eds from those sectors anyway.)

Gender: Approximately 76 percent of the op-eds collected have been written by male presidents, and 24 percent by female presidents. That split is fairly close to the ratio of male/female presidents across all nonprofit higher education – 74 percent male, 26 percent female – as reported by the American Council of Education in its most recent (2012) analysis, The American College President.

Number of Op-eds Published: As I note on the full list of presidents in the database, those with published op-eds comprise a pretty exclusive club. A pool of just 120 presidents wrote all of those 350 pieces, from a universe of more than 3,800 nonprofit college and university presidents. I’ve highlighted the 16 presidents with four or more published op-eds to date, and the presidents in that group are particularly impressive in their productivity. It’s also worthy of note that all three sectors are represented in the top half of the most-published list.

Types of Institutions Represented: It’s revealing to look at the collection of presidential op-eds by the type of institutions those writers lead. For Op-ed Writers by CarnClassthis analysis, I’ve used the broad brush of the 2010 Carnegie classifications that split nonprofit higher education into five groups: doctoral, master’s, baccalaureate, associate’s, and special focus. (Each of these is further divided into sub-groups, which I’ll ignore for my purposes. Also note that there will be major changes to these classifications in early 2015.) As a separate group, I’ve also included higher ed systems.

In raw numbers, presidents of baccalaureate institutions contributed the largest number of op-eds, accounting for 34 percent of all. Closely following are presidents of doctoral institutions, with nearly 30 percent of the total. Master’s colleges and universities accounted for another 24 percent.

Beyond a handful of opinion pieces by system heads, the remaining 12 percent were divided between associate’s and special focus institutions. This is telling. Together, these two groups include more than 2,000 institutions; however, only 17 of their presidents are represented here. In contrast, there are only 297 doctoral institutions nationally, yet 53 of their presidents – nearly a fifth – had published op-eds.

Ruminations, for what they’re worth: Working intensely with all of these opinion pieces by college and university presidents has now shaped my views of op-eds, and of presidents’ roles in that universe.

  • While it may be comforting to some that the representation of women presidents’ op-eds is consistent with their share of such leadership positions, I see an opportunity to do more. There is a crying need for gender equity in policy-making and in shaping public views of the issues facing society. I see women presidents’ voices as essential in that ongoing debate, and would encourage every woman president to give priority to speaking out in the public forum that op-eds offer.
  • By their limited participation, the presidents of associate’s degree institutions and special focus institutions are ceding the debate to the voices of their peers – and especially to the views and priorities of the doctoral institutions.   Certainly, there are issues at the local, state, and federal level with an impact on community colleges. Certainly, our nation is addressing issues that have an impact on faith-related colleges, medical and health-related schools, and art/music schools. Certainly, the leaders of law schools have something to contribute to our national discussions on police powers and our grand jury system, for example. Join that discussion. We need your informed views.
  • Maybe the doctoral institutions dominate because of their greater depth of staff, which often may include a presidential writer. Still, smaller institutions can call on their public relations office for support in a team effort with the president to define and create an op-ed. If that’s not possible, a modest investment in outside writing and strategizing support is another avenue.
  • Learn from the leaders in writing and placing op-eds. Look my list of at those with the largest number of published opinion pieces over the past year (I’ve also included links to all op-eds by the top 16). While quantity doesn’t necessarily equate with quality, these are presidents who have made a serious commitment to speaking out publicly – whether out of institutional self-interest or to weigh in on a major issue. They just might serve as good role models.

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