April 14, 2021

Who’s Writing the Op-eds?: A Fresh Look at the Presidents Behind the Words

This an update to an earlier post in mid-December 2014. That earlier analysis was based on about 350 opinion pieces.  Now, however, I’ve amassed nearly 600 opinion pieces by college and university presidents that have been published in 2014, on line or in print, making this a far more definitive look at presidents’ op-eds than the earlier post.

In mid-January, I posted a comprehensive list of the 205 presidents represented in the database . Here are some demographics…Opeds by Sector

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 (70%). Public four-year institutions account for 22 percent, with community colleges being the smallest segment (8%). I’ve chosen to exclude tribal colleges and for-profits, but have seen virtually no op-eds from those sectors anyway.

Number of Writers: 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 205 presidents wrote all of those 600 pieces, from a universe of more than 3,800 nonprofit college and university presidents. I’ve highlighted the 14 presidents with 10 or more published op-eds over 2014, and the presidents in that group are particularly impressive in their productivity. It’s also worth noting that all three sectors are represented in that list.

Gender: Approximately 78 percent of the presidents represented in the database are male, versus around 22 percent female presidents.  That split is a bit below 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.Op-ed Male-Female Chart

The male/female split increases, however, when you look at the number of op-eds in the database rather than individuals represented.  By this metric, 82 percent of the op-eds were written by male presidents, and only 18 percent by female presidents.

Types of Institutions Represented: It’s revealing to look at the collection of presidential op-eds by the type of Op-ed Writers by CarnClass - 2institutions those writers lead. For this 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 here. Note that there may be major changes to these classifications in 2015.) As a separate group, I’ve also included higher ed systems.

In raw numbers of op-eds, presidents of baccalaureate institutions contributed the most, accounting for 45 percent of all. Master’s colleges and universities accounted for another 24 percent, and doctorate-granting universities ranked third, at 16 percent.

Beyond a handful of opinion pieces by system heads, the remaining 15 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 18 of their presidents are represented here. In contrast, there are only 297 doctorate-granting universities nationally, yet 58 of their presidents – nearly a fifth – had published op-eds.

A few thoughts: 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.

  • It may be comforting to some that the representation of women presidents is is just slightly below their share of such leadership positions. However, women presidents are further underrepresented when the number of op-eds is considered, with their accounting for only 18 percent of all op-eds gathered.  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 and special focus institutions are ceding the public debate on societal and policy issues to the voices of their peers – and especially to the views and priorities of the baccalaureate 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 and master’s institutions have a greater op-ed presence because of their greater depth of staff, which may even include a presidential writer. Obviously, the baccalaureate institutions – many of which are relatively small – have found ways to participate.  Smaller institutions can call on their public relations office for support in a team effort with the president to define and create op-eds. If that’s not possible, a modest investment in outside writing and strategic placement support is another avenue.
  • Learn from the leaders in writing and placing op-eds. Look my list of presidents with the largest number of published opinion pieces over the past year. I’ve also included links to all op-eds by the top 14. 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 priorities, self-interest, or to weigh in on a major societal issue. They just might serve as good role models.

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