The Role and Responsibilities of a Chief Academic Officer

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A chief academic officer signs documents

A well-run college or university resembles a complex company, with many levels of leadership and management personnel. Just as major corporations have a full C-suite of leaders to take care of all aspects of business, educational institutions rely on a variety of department heads to create their strategic plans and set their direction.

The chief academic officer is one of the most pivotal people in this power structure, responsible for broadly overseeing teaching and learning within a school. The curriculum and other academic policies at a college or university are set by the CAO, who has direct responsibility for maintaining high standards of faculty performance and student achievement.

Taking on a chief academic officer role is a long-term career goal, one you can pursue by building a strong track record of professional experience, as well as strengthening your academic credentials.

What Does a Chief Academic Officer Do?

Because colleges and universities are judged on their academic records and ability to ensure positive student outcomes after graduation, chief academic officer positions are some of the most influential people within their respective schools. As academic consultant Michael Marsden specified, the ideal role for the CAO is to be second on the organizational chart, directly under the president and facilitating all scholastic matters for the institution.

There are plenty of subcategories within the general scope of the CAO’s duties. Academic officers have to set the policies for academic programs, teaching, research and overall student success. To successfully oversee so many different sides of school performance, the CAO has to learn the ins and outs of all these matters, and must be an expert communicator to work with other leaders responsible for those duties.

As someone who reports directly to the university president, the CAO also has to summarize information and present it in a way that will enable the president to make a quick decision. The role of the CAO sometimes involves being the intermediary between trustees, faculty and the university president, as well as setting the experience of the student body. This large volume of potentially contentious negotiation means CAOs must combine people skills with encyclopedic knowledge and a calm demeanor.

What Are the Salary and Hiring Prospects for Chief Academic Officers?

Due to the fact that the typical college or university will have a single CAO in the C-suite, there are not a large number of such positions available. This high level of authority, however, means that these executives can regularly earn high, six-figure salaries.

Average earnings for CAOs differ considerably based on location. This is a natural reflection of the differing costs of living in each of these cities, as well as the uneven distribution of colleges and universities. Serving in an academic center with high property values can lead to an especially high earning potential.

The median salary for CAOs is $196,750 in Detroit, the top city for the role by volume. In Chicago, the figure is similar but even higher, at $205,221. In New York, the median is $232,711, reflecting the high cost of living in that city. The fact that each of these top locations offers a median at or around $200,000 shows the earning power of the CAO role.

A chief academic officer works on a tabletWhat Kind of Background Prepares You to Be a Chief Academic Officer?

Because CAOs occupy high-ranking positions, just below the president level, working up to such a role takes time and requires the accumulation of considerable experience. This role demands at least a master’s degree level of education, as well as eight or more years of experience in managerial roles.

The high-level requirements for both educational background and job experience mean you need to have a plan for building each type of experience. In your professional life, this could mean focusing on leadership positions in a variety of subject areas within a college or university setting.

In terms of developing your academic background, you can seek out a graduate degree in education. While a master’s degree is likely the minimum needed to rise to a CAO role, you can pursue a doctor of education (Ed.D.) degree to bolster your academic credentials. An Ed.D. program can equip you with in-depth knowledge about the cutting-edge best practices of educational leadership.

The online Ed.D. program at Bradley University is taught by an experienced faculty with deep involvement in the modern higher education space. This means they can deliver the cutting-edge insights you need to thrive in your present role and as you move along a CAO career path. The courses’ online nature means you can study from wherever you are while maintaining your professional role and building experience.

To find out more about the Ed.D. program and how it fits into your long-term career goals, visit the program page.

Recommended Readings:

Career Opportunities for a Doctor of Education Degree

How can a doctorate in education help increase my salary?


Inside Higher Education — What  Makes a Good Chief Academic Officer?

Inside Higher Education — Lost Cows and Orphaned Nukes — Chief Academic Officer