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Exploring top careers in higher education management

Education is the single most significant determinant in reducing poverty, bringing upward social mobility, and making an economically and politically sound society. Consequently, the institutions that bring about this learning system become very crucial.

The effectiveness of our schools, colleges, and universities is largely influenced by the people at the helm – taking decisions and pulling the strings. Academic leadership is very different from leadership in the business world. Higher education leaders are both socially and financially accountable to a tapestry of stakeholders – administration, parents, faculty, students, trustees, and many more. Higher education management programs can fill the leadership deficit in higher education by instilling essential traits and addressing their challenges.

Often, we have seen and interacted with Presidents, Provosts, Chief Academic Officers, Deans, and Directors, sitting in their rooms with thick drapes drawn tight. Getting there is no easy feat. Taking these top positions of higher education in perspective, we will see how they get the job done. Here, we explore the higher education management landscape to understand the top positions in higher education administration, their roles and how are they recruited. 


Directors are the leaders, facilitators, and monitors of a center or department in a higher educational institution. A director could be for an academic department, such as Director of Department of Political Science, Director of Department of Computer Science, and so on, as well as administration, namely Director of Admission, Director of Academics, etc. They often report to the Deans.

Overall job of the directors in higher education management is to,

  • Ensure quality faculty are recruited, retained, supported and rewarded;
  • An admission director would determine the number of students to add to a department/school;
  • Ensure professional development of faculty through events, seminars, and engagement in research;
  • Curation of new curriculum;
  • Manage annual budgets; and
  • Reviewing faculty and student performance.

How does the position of a director differ from a chair? The role of directors is outwardly focused, while that of a chair is inwardly focused – the former’s role involves a lot of time to be spent on managing external relationships (especially with Dean, Provosts, Chairs of other departments and others). Directors usually come higher in the hierarchy than chairs.

Where do they come from? Chairs or heads can graduate to become directors. Furthermore, administrators who work in registrar’s office or other academic administration with several years of academic experience can take up the position.


Deans in higher education management are the people in charge of managing the overall department or an administrative unit, such as Dean of Student Affairs, Dean of Research, Dean of Social Sciences, among others. They often report to Provost, or sometimes directly to the President. They make decisions like:

  • How to develop an admissions policy?
  • What subfield faculty should be hired next?
  • How to introduce new age courses?
  • How to devise new types of scholarship funds?
  • How to restructure existing courses in more exciting program?

How does the position of a dean differ from a director? Directors directs, while deans manage. While directors would oversee education programs, create and design curriculum, deans would authorize the curriculum. However, both oversee the budgetary aspect of a department.

Where do they come from? Directors can advance to the position of a dean. Search committees typically prefer those with years of experience in university or college administration. Administrative work in registrar’s office or as a college resident assistant can be extremely helpful. Other than that, an experience in student affair and admission is sought after.


A provost also known as vice president, chief academic officer, chancellor (in some countries), serves as second in-command after president in higher education management. Provost is concerned with the inward development of the institution. They have following responsibilities:

  • Working with faculty and students to augment their academic experience;
  • Establish school’s academic vision;
  • Work with deans and directors of the departments;
  • Collaborate with president for setting overall academic priorities;
  • Oversee daily operations including allocating financial and human resources;
  • Ensure curriculum meet federal and state policies; and
  • Hiring and retaining faculty.

Where do they come from? Provosts come with significant years of academic and administrative experience in registrar office, student affair, admission, etc. Deans can also become Provosts after some years of service.


This is the topmost position in higher education management. President sits at the helm of the management of a university or college.

How does the position of a president differ from a provost? The job role of provosts doesn’t overlap that of the college president. Rather their roles are complementary. Provost is concerned with “inward and down” development of the institution, and works with faculty and students to augment their academic experience. Presidents’ role is focused on “up and out” with frequent meets with governing boards, public, alumni, even political leaders.

Where do they come from? The office of provost or chancellor or chief academic officer as the position may be called is still the most prevalent launchpad for college presidency. The trend, however, is witnessing a change. Deans may surpass provost’s office to become presidents. Further, they may also be chosen from outside academics, from business or government. Evidence suggests,

Earlier every 4 in 10 professors would come through provost’s office. However today, many sitting provosts no longer dream for the top job. Neither they, in many cases, have the set of skills necessary for the job role. (Deloitte)

These are the top positions that direct how higher education of the day will turn out. Are you ready to join the league, or graduate to an advanced one?

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