Holding Out for a Hero: Leadership Discourse in College and University Presidential Job Postings in a 20-Year Span

Holding Out for a Hero: Leadership Discourse in College and University Presidential Job Postings in a 20-Year Span

Regina L. Garza Mitchell (Western Michigan University, USA), Erika A. Carr (Western Michigan University, USA), Lisa R. Garcia (Western Michigan University, USA), Luke E. Steinman (Western Michigan University, USA), Marlene Kowalski-Braun (Grand Valley State University, USA) and Andrea L. Beach (Western Michigan University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-7056-1.ch010
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This chapter presents findings from a study of the discourse around college and university presidential leadership. Using feminist critical discourse analysis, the authors analyzed the discourse in job postings in the Chronicle of Higher Education for the years 1996 and 2016. The goal of the study was to analyze postings in a 20-year span to explore and unpack differences in leadership discourse from a gendered perspective. The findings show that although leadership discourse has become somewhat more inclusive, it remains entrenched in the ideas of a hero or “great man” leader.
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The definition of a good leader changes over time, and the language used to describe leadership is key to understanding what is acceptable and desired in those who lead our colleges and universities at the highest level: the presidency. Language is inherently political (Fairclough, 2010; Gee, 2014; Lazar, 2014), so the discourse around the qualifications of and expectations for college and university presidents has the power to shape – for better or for worse – who sees themselves in those roles and whose image is forefront in the minds of search committees and campus members. Discourse about leadership extends from conversations, both verbal and written, about leadership including research, scholarly literature, business literature, job descriptions, and job postings.


Presidential leadership in higher education has traditionally been and is primarily still the domain of White males. Only 30% of college and university presidents are women, with the highest concentration found in community colleges and professional colleges (Gagliardi, Espinosa, Turk, & Taylor, 2017). Numerous studies have examined the types of inequalities that exist in senior leadership in higher education. Despite acknowledging the inequities in power and position that exist, very little progress is being made in bringing parity to leadership positions. The image of a college president, as well as the definition of qualifications and expectations for the role, have long been shaped by White males. Dismantling the “Great Man” or hero narrative around these leaders has been challenging (Allan, Gordon, & Iverson, 2006; Amey, 2013; Eddy & VanDerLinden, 2006; Wilson & Cox, 2012). Investigating the invisible underlying assumptions that impact decision making, such as deciding who to hire and determining the appropriate qualities for a candidate, through the discourse around desired leadership characteristics, is one way of addressing inequities. Thus, the purpose of this study was to investigate how presidential leadership was framed through the discourse of job postings in a 20-year time span.

The questions guiding this study are:

  • 1.

    How is presidential leadership framed in job postings in a 20-year span?

    • a.

      What is the discourse around particular ideas of leadership?

    • b.

      How has discourse around leadership changed over time?

  • 2.

    What gendered ideas of leadership are present in presidential job postings?

We opted to examine postings for the years 1996 and 2016 because concepts of leadership, presidential job duties and selection, and the discourse around college and university leadership has evolved over the past 20 years. For example, college and university presidents are now expected to act as fundraisers (Gagliardi, Espinosa, Turk, & Taylor, 2017; Kim & Cook, 2013) more so than in the past, and the majority of institutions rely on professional search firms (Kim & Cook, 2013; Wilde & Finkelstein, 2017) to support or guide their hiring processes. Internal discourse about leadership reflects the broader, external discourse, which may reproduce societal inequities (Fairclough & Wodak, 1997). Presidential job postings are texts that contribute to the larger discourse about higher education leadership. They describe desired actions, attitudes, behaviors, characteristics, and traits of those deemed qualified to fill the top leadership position. When considered in the larger discourse, these postings both contribute to and reflect broad ideas about who is considered a leader and how that person should lead. Examining the way that job postings frame the discourse about leadership may provide insights about the role language plays in making top-level leadership positions welcoming to women.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Discourse: Discussion through talk or text.

President: The top position in a college or university. For purposes of this study, we included presidents of college/university campuses and systems.

Feminist Critical Discourse Analysis: A form of critical discourse analysis that applies a feminist lens.

Higher Education: Postsecondary or tertiary education. This term typically refers to institutions such as colleges and universities.

Critical discourse analysis: The critical study of how broad and specific discourses reflect social inequities and imbalances of power for different groups.

Job Posting: An advertisement in a newspaper seeking to invite applications for employment.

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