Chief Academic Officer Transition: Opportunity, Chaos or Something in Between?

Winter 2021-22
Andy Brantley, Ed.D.

Frequent executive employee turnover can disrupt operations, impact the culture, and add many thousands of dollars in additional cost to the organization (Allen & Bryant, 2012; Cascio, 2006). It can also increase employee turnover, employee anxiety, and uncertainties about the future (Knudsen, Ducharme & Roman, 2009).

In 2020, the median tenure of U.S. college presidents was six years and the median tenure for senior institutional officers combined was eight years, yet 47 percent of chief academic officers (CAOs) had been in their current positions three years or less (Pritchard, Nadel-Hawthorn, Schmidt, Fuesting, & Bichsel, 2020).

This frequent transition of chief academic officers poses significant challenges for college presidents as well as other senior leaders and board of trustee members who collectively work to ensure smooth, efficient, and effective management and leadership of the institution.

While we know that 47 percent of CAOs have been in their positions three years or less, there is limited data regarding why CAOs consider staying in or leaving their positions, so I made this the focus of my study. My hope was that a deeper understanding of what motivates CAOs to leave or stay would help institution leaders better define CAO roles and responsibilities and potentially lessen the frequency of CAO turnover. This deeper understanding could also help search committees focus and more clearly define their work to ensure that candidates are evaluated based on the roles, responsibilities, and challenges of the CAO and institution.

Interviews With 13 Chief Academic Officers

I conducted participant interviews in late February and early March 2021 via Zoom. The COVID-19 pandemic had been raging for almost a year and the first phases of emergency-authorized doses of the vaccines were being administered across the country. The study included only 13 CAOs from doctoral institutions, so their views may or may not have been representative of all CAOs across the country, but they do provide guidance that can be informative for institution leaders as they consider what motivates their CAO to stay in or leave the position. Transcript analysis from the 13 interviews revealed 11 strong themes.

Themes Related to Challenging Job Duties and Responsibilities

“It’s really a beast of a role.”

Twelve of the 13 CAOs interviewed used the words “toughest job on campus,” or similar to describe their roles, and the number of comments related to challenging duties and responsibilities significantly outnumbered comments in all other areas. What makes the duties and responsibilities of this role so tough? Duties and responsibilities challenges fell largely into three themes.

Large Number of Responsibilities, Direct Reports, and Frequent Difficult Decisions

“You knew the job was dangerous when you took it.”

“The problems you are trying to solve don’t have easy or obvious solutions. If they did someone else would have already taken care of them.”

Eleven of the 13 CAOs referenced challenges associated with the breadth of duties and responsibilities, the frequency of difficult decisions, and being dragged into the minutia. All CAOs interviewed for this study described a large portfolio of duties and responsibilities including many direct reports, multiple committee leadership roles, and significant areas of management oversight. Adding to the challenges associated with large numbers of direct reports, several CAOs noted that turnover was also a challenge, including time needed to manage search processes and onboard new leaders with several sharing that they were currently onboarding new deans and department heads in addition to ongoing duties and responsibilities. Responses by a number of interviewees also indicated that few decisions at higher education institutions are supported by the entire campus community.

Back-to-Back Meetings, Long Days, and No Time for Planning

“The schedule is pretty grueling, and I think there are times that came at a cost to my personal life and my health.”

Large numbers of direct reports and committees, multiple areas requiring management oversight, and frequent difficult decisions also mean that CAOs spend their days in back-to-back meetings with meeting preparation, responding to emails, and planning occurring in early mornings, nights, and weekends. Eleven of the 13 CAOs interviewed noted the challenges created by their very busy meeting schedules.

One CAO noted that evenings and weekends are the only time for thinking, writing, and analysis; and another shared that anything requiring critical thinking can only be done outside of normal working hours. Two participants also noted that it was challenging to maintain their research interests.

People Management and Disciplinary Challenges

“There’s barely a day that goes by, and certainly not a week that goes by, that the words “You’ve got to be kidding me” don’t come out of my mouth.”

Leading large organizations with many responsibilities and direct reports also means that CAOs spend a lot of time managing people and disciplinary challenges. Twelve of 13 CAOs referenced people management challenges in their large, complex organizations, including the time needed to manage people and the disciplinary challenges created by unacceptable faculty and staff work performance and personal conduct. A common comment from participants was that they did not realize going into the role how much time would be spent managing the day-to-day work of direct reports, including the time required to deal with turnover, to lead and coordinate searches, and onboard new deans and other direct reports.

One CAO noted that evenings and weekends are the only time for thinking, writing, and analysis; and another shared that anything requiring critical thinking can only be done outside of normal working hours.

Themes Related to Most Rewarding Job Duties and Responsibilities

“That’s a rewarding part — just getting to see the breadth of things that we do here on campus and developing a greater appreciation for that.”

In addition to commenting on some of the challenges, all 13 CAOs shared details regarding their most rewarding duties and responsibilities. These fell largely into three themes.

Leading and Contributing to the Success of the Institution and Students

“As I tell the faculty, you’re really the dream makers. The more you can find ways to help first generation students succeed, the more you are dream makers for those students and their families.”

All 13 CAOs commented that leading and contributing to the success of the institution and students were rewarding parts of their roles. Most institutional success contribution comments were focused on the opportunity to lead change on a large scale, make an impact, and really make a difference for the institution and students. All but a few of the CAOs also specifically referenced their roles in driving student success, including access and success for first generation and low-income students and their families.

Developing Strategy

“I’m a builder, I’m a strategist.”

In addition to the gratification from leading and contributing to the success of the institution and students, 10 of 13 CAOs specifically referenced developing and implementing strategy as an energizing part of the role.

Building and Supporting People

“These jobs are all about figuring out how to empower people, and let the drivers be the drivers, and once you got it working, get out of the way.”

Twelve of 13 CAOs shared the gratification they receive from building and supporting people across the organization, including supporting deans and creating opportunities to build bridges and bring people together. One CAO shared that “The best part of the job is working with smart people who care a lot.”

Themes Related to Work Relationships

“I try to break it down to people and jokingly say my job is simple. I just have to keep the president happy and the faculty happy.”

Participant comments revealed the perception that when one works in the “toughest job on campus” there are going to be many important work relationships connected to the job duties and responsibilities of the position. Some of these work relationships are negative and make the jobs of CAOs more challenging, while others are positive and make the jobs more engaging and rewarding. Two themes emerged regarding work relationships.

Walking the Tightrope

“It’s a balancing act, which I can do fairly well, but it’s exhausting year after year.”

Twelve of the 13 CAOs interviewed referenced work relationship challenges, with 11 of them specifically referencing challenges of walking the tightrope created by institutional bureaucracy, faculty governance, politics, and boards. Participant CAOs noted challenges related to risk aversion by other executives and faculty, faculty governance, and the difficulty of being caught in the middle between the president and the faculty. Like many leadership positions, CAOs do not get to share their personal political views. As one CAO put it, “You have to be careful and remember that irrespective of where you fall on the political spectrum, half of your stakeholders are probably going to have a different view.” Participants also commented regarding the challenges created by not being able to share the full story with the politicians, the media, and others due to legal or other confidentiality issues.

Twelve of the 13 CAOs interviewed referenced work relationship challenges, with 11 of them specifically referencing challenges of walking the tightrope created by institutional bureaucracy, faculty governance, politics, and boards.

Positive Relationships with President, Vice Presidents, and CAO Office Staff

“I’ve got a great president, and I have a great relationship with them. To me that’s been an important part of why I’ve been in the job so long.”

Eleven of 13 CAOs commented on positive work relationships with presidents, vice presidents, and others in executive leadership positions. Nine of the 13 specifically mentioned positive, engaging relationships with their president, and more than half also commented about overall positive relationships with the campus community. Ten of 13 CAOs mentioned strong collaborative relationships with the CAO office staff with some mentioning specific individuals and positions and others commenting about the collective strength of the CAO office team.

Themes Related to Staying In or Leaving the Position

“A lot of people look at this job as a stepping stone job to a presidency.”

“The only thing that appealed to me was that if I ever wanted to be a president somewhere that having checked the provost box would be beneficial.”

“I think the major factor contributing to whether provosts stay or leave the role is stress. This is a highly stressful job.”

Of note is that no themes emerged regarding reasons CAOs planned to stay in their current roles. Three participants mentioned that they did not aspire to move to a presidency, with one noting that they were happy in their current role, and another noting that they felt rewarded by what they were doing in the CAO position. However, 10 of the 13 CAOs interviewed commented on plans to pursue another opportunity, specifically a presidency. Eleven of the 13 CAOs also shared that the overall difficulty and stress of the role would likely contribute to, or prompt, their departure. In other words, responses focused on their initial interview comments emphasizing that, in their opinion, the CAO job is the toughest and most stressful on campus.

Recommendations for the Future

This study was conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic with CAO interviews during February and March of 2021. As noted by CAOs interviewed for this study, the pandemic made their already-challenging and stressful jobs more challenging and stressful, including difficult decision-making during times of significant uncertainty. Similarly, they also noted that the challenges created by the pandemic made already-challenging work relationships even more difficult. As higher education transitions beyond the pandemic, CAOs, presidents, and other campus leaders must grapple with challenges that existed before, or were exacerbated or created by, the pandemic, including the approaching enrollment cliff, race relations, equity for women and people of color, student and employee mental health and well-being, and long-term financial viability (Grawe, 2017; Taylor et al., 2021). With these challenges in mind, I offer the following recommendations.

Greater Clarity Regarding CAO Titles and Position Descriptions

The majority of CAOs in this study commented that they did not fully understand all the duties and responsibilities and potential challenges of the position when they agreed to move into the role. Indeed, for all study participants, their responsibilities extended beyond management and oversight of the academic mission of the institution and included responsibility for the work of other vice presidents including research, diversity and inclusion, student affairs, and others. Titles of 10 of the 13 interviewed included the word “provost,” with some also incorporating vice president, senior vice president, or similar as part of the title. Before addressing the structuring and wording of the position descriptions for CAO positions, it could be beneficial for campus leaders to incorporate guidance from Atnip (2009), Martin and Samels (2015), and Buller (2015) to develop a more standard approach to the use of the word “provost” in position titles to provide internal and external clarity regarding the role of the position. Using this guidance leads to two questions to help determine the title of the position. The first question: Does the position have duties and responsibilities beyond academic affairs, including the oversight of the work of other vice presidents? If so, the word “provost” should be incorporated into the title. If responsibilities are primarily focused on academic affairs, it would provide greater clarity for CAOs, other campus leaders, and potential CAO candidates to not include the word “provost,” and  instead use “vice president” or similar.

The second question relates to the incumbent’s position in the organization. Regardless of the delegated responsibilities, does the incumbent function as the second-in-charge for the institution, serving as proxy for the president, or serving as the institution’s chief operating officer? If so, it would provide greater clarity for CAOs, other campus leaders, and potential CAO candidates to use a title such as “senior vice president and provost” or “executive vice president and provost” to identify the role to external and internal constituents. It might also be helpful for presidents to consider whether or not other positions reporting directly to the president like the chief business officer, the chief external affairs officer, or the chief human resources officer have a similar “senior vice president” or “executive vice president” title. If there is no clear second-in-charge, titles for vice presidents reporting to the president should be consistent. If the provost is the clear second-in-charge with the title including “senior vice president,” other direct reports to the president should not also have this title, instead being acknowledged with the title “vice president.”

This also means that there would be more organizational clarity if academic affairs-focused positions did not include the word “provost” in the title. These positions could instead be referred to as “vice presidents” or “associate vice presidents” unless there are significant duties and responsibilities that extend beyond academic affairs. This overall approach to position titles for the CAO position and positions within the CAO organization would provide greater clarity for institution leaders, search committees, and candidates for CAO positions.

Greater Clarity Regarding Position Challenges, Duties, and Responsibilities

Greater clarity regarding the titling of the CAO position could be coupled with greater clarity regarding the actual duties and responsibilities of the position. The duties and responsibilities of provosts are frequently poorly defined and often not focused on the work that is most impactful and important (Bugeja, 2018). This was supported by the comments CAOs shared as part of this study. Mech (1997) also noted that the qualifications, skills, and abilities that search committees think are required for successful chief academic officer candidates often do not match those included in advertisements for vacant chief academic officer positions. Position descriptions and advertisements should be carefully developed to clearly outline the duties and responsibilities of the position, essential credentials, and important leadership characteristics. If the position is the second-most-senior role, this should be clearly stated.

Position descriptions and advertisements should also clearly convey unique elements of the institution’s mission, values, and challenges, and the desired candidate characteristics should match those needed to be successful in the role. Misleading or unclear descriptions or advertisements can create a mismatch between needed credentials and experiences and those of the candidates who apply for the position.

Adjustments to the CAO Organization Structure

Few organizations create a structure that requires one of the key strategic leaders of the organization to directly supervise the work of 20+ positions, but this is what has been created for the CAOs who participated in this study and many doctoral institution CAOs across the U.S. Organization structures for the CAOs included in this study had slight differences in titles of positions reporting to the CAO to reflect the different cultures and operations of the institutions, but there was overall very little variance with all deans and a mixture of vice provosts, associate provosts, vice presidents, associate vice presidents, and office support staff reporting directly to the CAO positions.

One option for presidents and CAOs to consider would be restructuring the reporting relationship of deans. A current position that reports to the CAO could be converted to a vice president for academic affairs (or similar) with deans reporting to that position instead of the senior vice president and provost. Some deans might perceive it to be more prestigious to report directly to the senior vice president and provost, but is this necessary to support the academic mission and provide the guidance needed to manage their organizations? One potential revised structure is reflected in Figure 1. Note that this structure also adopts a clearer method of titling positions reporting to the provost as outlined earlier in the CAO titles section of this article. The only position reporting to the senior vice president and provost with the word “provost” in the title for this revised structure has responsibilities that stretch across all areas of the provost organization and are not limited to just one area (e.g., academic affairs). All other positions have vice president or associate vice president titles to indicate that their primary responsibilities are focused in one area of the organization.

Figure 1: Revised CAO organization structure: create a VP for academic affairs position. It is important to note that one proposed organization structure could never fully capture the needed structure to support the operations of every institution.

If the senior vice president and provost prefers to stay more closely connected to the academic affairs responsibilities and retain the direct reporting relationship with deans, another option to consider would be converting a current position to a vice provost with all other vice presidents reporting directly to that position (see Figure 2). Not only does this organization structure change create a more manageable organization for the senior vice president and provost, it also creates a career path for future provosts by providing the opportunity for deans and other academic leaders to be promoted into the role and lead other areas of the organization including research, student affairs, and enrollment management.

Figure 1: Revised CAO organization structure: create a vice provost position. It is important to note that one proposed organization structure could never fully capture the needed structure to support the operations of every institution.

It might also be beneficial to review the structure of dean positions. The dean of arts and sciences role organizes many different academic disciplines under one dean. Organizing some other academic disciplines under one dean might increase collaboration across disciplines and lessen the number of deans reporting to the vice president for academic affairs in Figure 1 and the senior vice president and provost in Figure 2. While this change could be fraught with implementation challenges, including internal politics, it could be an important strategy to pursue to create a better-functioning, more efficient, organizational structure.

In addition to considering changes to duties and responsibilities and organization structure, there are other ways to provide guidance and support to CAOs. One study participant noted the importance and value of an external coach who has provided support since their appointment to the role. Other participants noted the importance of mentors from within and outside of their institutions who have served as resources and sounding boards.

Incorporating some of these recommendations could be an important way for higher education institution leaders to acknowledge the great contributions of our CAOs and the importance we place on them as individuals who are balancing extraordinary workloads while attempting to continue their research and find time to dedicate to life, family, and interests beyond the CAO role.


There is no single strategy that will work for all institutions across the country, but incorporating some of these recommendations might help address some of the challenges outlined by CAOs who participated this study, potentially lengthening the amount of time that CAOs spend in the position and causing more current and future CAOs to aspire to serve in the role instead of viewing it as a stepping stone to the presidency. CAOs and the entire campus community have been through a lot during the last two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Incorporating some of these recommendations could be an important way for higher education institution leaders to acknowledge the great contributions of our CAOs and the importance we place on them as individuals who are balancing extraordinary workloads while attempting to continue their research and find time to dedicate to life, family, and interests beyond the CAO role.

Chief academic officers who participated in this study described their jobs as the “toughest job on campus.” I hope this study will be a guide to help campus leaders evaluate and make needed changes to clarify CAO duties and responsibilities and create more time for them to focus on the more energizing and rewarding parts of the role. I also hope that the outcomes from this study can help better prepare organizations for chief academic officer transitions to ensure that the transitions create opportunities instead of chaos, or something in between.

About the author: Andy Brantley, Ed.D., is president and CEO of CUPA-HR. This article was created using content from Dr. Brantley’s dissertation, “Chief Academic Officer Transition: Opportunity, Chaos or Something in Between?” He defended his dissertation and graduated from the University of Georgia in the fall of 2021.

©2022 Andy Brantley. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.


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