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Higher Education as a Vocation

by Sydney Freeman Jr. - September 26, 2016

This commentary argues that higher education, when viewed in light of its impact on students and broader society, is more than a profession: it is a vocation. This discussion is needed as higher education has become more complex and there is a commensurate need for well-prepared administrators to lead these important institutions.

Higher education graduate programs for over 120 years have effectively prepared leaders and scholars for service in the postsecondary sector (Freeman & Kochan, 2014). Individuals who participate in these programs have chosen to dedicate their professional lives to developing the knowledge, skills, competencies, and dispositions necessary to advance the field of higher education (Wright & Miller, 2007). However, the large majority of administrators have not had the opportunity to engage in formal study and preparation in the field they serve (Selingo, 2016). I have observed after more than a decade of service in higher education graduate programs that some individuals, particularly faculty, do not recognize that higher education is a profession. In this commentary, I argue that higher education when viewed in light of its impact on students and broader society is more than a profession; it is a vocation, a calling, a mission, even a lifes work. This discussion is needed as higher education has become more complex and there is a commensurate need for well-prepared administrators to lead these important institutions.


Higher education is not viewed as the vocation that it is. Although they mean well, many individuals have entered the field in an ad hoc way, (Selingo, 2016). Some have previously served as tenure-track faculty. After earning tenure and serving on institutional committees, some become passionate about the opportunity to provide broader leadership in a tangible way. These individuals generally assume a formal leadership role while retaining their academic appointment, while others enter the academy after serving in the private or public sector. Due to the fact that higher education programs are not offered at the undergraduate level, most individuals who have not worked in higher education understand the field based on their limited experiences as students. Even when faculty and new administrators with previous work experience outside of the academy begin careers in higher education, they receive little or no formal training beyond workshops that are inadequately measured to gauge their effectiveness (American Council on Education, 2016a; Guthrie & Osteen, 2016; Harvard Institutes for Higher Education, 2016; Higher Education Leadership Foundation, 2016; Pfeffer, 2015).

Most higher education leaders practices are not necessarily grounded in theory or best practices (Selingo, 2016). They learn on the job and from mentoring by senior colleagues. While I recognize the value of those experiences, it is also important for them to begin their careers with a clear understanding of the history of higher education and rigorous research to undergird daily practice and decision-making. Many decisions are based on anecdotal experience and dependent on the context of a particular campus without insight drawn from the aggregate of higher education campuses nationwide. This is especially important for those in entry or midlevel positions who typically do not receive professional development experiences beyond their campuses.


It is interesting that at the elementary and secondary levels of education, administrators are expected to go through formal training through degrees and certifications (Texas Education Agency, 2016). However, no such standards exist for higher education administrators. Higher education is instead a profession with its own set of values. I argue that we are moving to a point where a greater number of our leaders should be formally trained in higher education as a distinct field of study. I make this argument but also recognize that not every leader may have the ability or means to pursue a masters and/or a doctoral degree with a specialization in higher education. Each leader should earn some form of certification indicating they have a basic understanding of academic governance, student services, finance, fundraising, assessment, accountability, higher education law, and the history and contemporary issues impacting the field. For the previous 20 years, the American Council of Education (ACE) has called for the preparation of a diverse group of talent to assume senior leadership roles within the academy. Currently more than 60% of sitting presidents of higher education institutions are 61 years old or above, with a large portion of them being white males (ACE, 2016b).


I do not subscribe to the notion that everyone who becomes a president must take a linear academic career route. However, I do believe that higher education graduate programs provide the best academic foundation for successful leadership in the field (Freeman & Kochan, 2014). We have seen in some instances that those who have other disciplinary training, without adequate preparation in academic governance and cultural competency, particularly in business, have been professionally unsuccessful. For example, Tim Wolfe, former president of the University of Missouri system, had a wealth of corporate experience (Miller & Stuckey-French, 2015); however, he was woefully unprepared to effectively lead his institution during a time of crisis. With little to no exposure to student development theories and cultural competencies, his leadership style and lack of knowledge of the sector proved to be a part of his presidencys demise although he was respected for his corporate experience.


Higher education graduate program curriculum should continue to offer a core set of courses that expose students to the key concepts that are pertinent to the field (Freeman & Kochan, 2014). However, this curriculum also needs to provide flexibility to address changing environments. I contend that serving in higher education takes more than loving students or the campus environment as too many students futures are at stake.


Finally, we need better assessment to gauge the effectiveness of these programs (Freeman & Kochan, 2014). As it stands, there is little to no peer-reviewed evidence proving that higher education programs definitively prepare their graduates better for service in the higher education sector versus other fields of study. For example, executive summer training programs do not adequately measure outcomes of their participants administrative effectiveness prior to assuming their professional role versus post-program administrative performance via longitudinal tools (Pfeffer, 2015). It is important that the preparation of leaders in higher education not be taken lightly. Every program should collect longitudinal evidence from their participants and graduates to show the value-added from participation in the program, whether it is a summer institute or a graduate program. For higher education leadership and administration to earn the respect it desires, the preparation of its practitioners must be rigorous, meaningful, and current. If that is accomplished, higher education leadership and administration will move from being viewed simply as a profession to being viewed as a vocation (Fife & Goodchild, 1991).




American Council on Education (2016a). ACE Leadership. Retrieved from http://www.acenet.edu/leadership/Pages/default.aspx

American Council on Education (2016b). American College President study: Diversity in leadership. Retrieved from https://www.acenet.edu/news-room/Pages/American-College-President-Study.aspx

Fife, J. D., & L. F. Goodchild (Eds.) (1991). Administration as a profession: New directions for higher education, No. 76. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


Freeman, Jr. S., & Kochan, F. (2014) Towards a theoretical framework for the doctorate in higher education administration. In S. Freeman, Jr., L. Hagedorn, L. Goodchild, & D. A. Wright (Eds). Advancing higher education as a field of study: In quest of doctoral degree guidelines-Commemorating 120 of excellence. (pp. 145-167). Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Guthrie, K. L., & Osteen L. (Eds.) (2016). Reclaiming higher education's purpose in leadership development: New directions for higher education, No. 174. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


Harvard Institutes for Higher Education (HIHE) (2016). Institute for Educational Management. Retrieved from https://www.gse.harvard.edu/ppe/program/institute-educational-management-iem


Higher Education Leadership Foundation (H.E.L.F.) (2016). The H.E.L.F. Mission. Retrieved from http://heleaders.org/


Miller, B. J., & Stuckey-French, N. (2015, November 11). In Missouri, the downfall of a business-minded president. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://www.chronicle.com/article/In-Missouri-the-Downfall-of-a/234164


Pfeffer, F. T., (2015). Equality and quality in education. Social Science Research 51, 350368.

Selingo, J. J. (2016, August 9). How colleges prepare (or dont prepare) their leaders is holding back innovation. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://www.chronicle.com/article/How-Colleges-Prepare-or/237368


Texas Education Agency (2016). Becoming a principal or superintendent in Texas. Retrieved from http://tea.texas.gov/Texas_Educators/Certification/Additional_Certifications/Becoming_a_Principal_or_Superintendent_in_Texas/


Wright, D., & Miller, M. T. (Eds.). (2007). Training higher education policy makers and leaders: A graduate program perspective. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, Inc.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 26, 2016
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21655, Date Accessed: 1/19/2022 11:26:18 PM

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About the Author
  • Sydney Freeman Jr.
    University of Idaho
    E-mail Author
    SYDNEY FREEMAN JR. is an Associate Professor of Higher Education Leadership at the University of Idaho.
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