Navigating the Role of a Chief Academic Officer: Lessons from a Year as an Interim Leader

Taking on the role of a Chief Academic Officer (CAO) is a significant responsibility, one that demands a delicate balance of strategic vision, operational oversight, and empathetic leadership. Having served as the Interim CAO at a university with three distinct colleges for the past year, I've gained invaluable insights into what it takes to succeed in this pivotal position. Here are some pieces of advice for new CAOs embarking on their journey.

1. Embrace the Learning Curve

When I first stepped into the role, I quickly realized that no amount of preparation can fully equip you for the breadth of responsibilities and challenges you'll face. Be prepared to learn continuously. Seek guidance from your predecessor, if possible, and don't hesitate to reach out to other experienced CAOs for advice and support. Your willingness to learn will set a positive example for your colleagues and help you navigate the complexities of your role.

2. Build Strong Relationships

The success of a CAO hinges on the relationships you cultivate within the university. Prioritize building trust and open lines of communication with deans, faculty, staff, and students. Attend meetings, participate in campus events, and make yourself accessible. Understanding the unique needs and concerns of each college will enable you to make informed decisions that benefit the entire institution.

3. Develop a Clear Vision

A CAO must articulate a clear, strategic vision for the academic future of the university. This vision should align with the institution's mission and goals, and it should be communicated effectively to all stakeholders. Work collaboratively with the academic community to set priorities, establish goals, and create actionable plans. A shared vision fosters a sense of unity and purpose, driving progress and innovation.

4. Foster a Culture of Collaboration

Promote a culture of collaboration across the university. Encourage interdisciplinary initiatives and support faculty in their efforts to work across departmental and college boundaries. Collaborative environments stimulate creativity and innovation, leading to richer academic experiences for students and faculty alike. Facilitate opportunities for faculty and staff to share ideas and best practices, and recognize and reward collaborative efforts.

5. Prioritize Student Success

At the heart of any academic institution is its students. As CAO, ensure that student success remains a top priority in all decision-making processes. Advocate for resources and support systems that enhance the student experience, from academic advising and tutoring services to mental health and career counseling. Listen to student feedback and involve them in discussions about their educational journey.

6. Lead with Empathy and Integrity

Leadership is not just about making decisions; it's about how you make those decisions. Lead with empathy and integrity, considering the impact of your actions on the entire university community. Be transparent in your communications and consistent in your actions. By demonstrating ethical leadership and showing genuine concern for others, you'll earn the respect and trust of your colleagues.

7. Stay Informed and Adaptable

The landscape of higher education is constantly evolving. Stay informed about trends, changes in accreditation guidelines, challenges, and opportunities in the academic world. Be adaptable and open to change, whether it involves embracing new technologies, revising curricula, or responding to external pressures. Your ability to navigate change will help the university remain resilient and forward-thinking.

8. Balance Short-Term Needs with Long-Term Goals

While it's essential to address immediate concerns, don't lose sight of long-term goals. Strive for a balance between quick wins and sustainable growth. This involves careful planning, prudent resource management, and a focus on building a strong academic foundation that will support the university's mission for years to come.

9. Seek Feedback and Reflect

Regularly seek feedback from your colleagues and reflect on your performance. Conduct surveys, hold town hall meetings, and have one-on-one discussions to gather input on your leadership and the university's direction. Use this feedback to make informed adjustments and continuously improve your approach.

10. Take Care of Yourself

Finally, remember that your well-being is crucial to your effectiveness as a leader. The role of a CAO can be demanding and stressful. Prioritize self-care, set boundaries, and seek support when needed. By maintaining your health and well-being, you'll be better equipped to serve your university with energy and dedication, and you can serve as a positive example for your campus community.


Serving as an Interim Chief Academic Officer has been an incredibly rewarding experience, offering countless lessons and opportunities for growth. As you step into the role of CAO, embrace the challenges with confidence and a commitment to making a positive impact. By fostering strong relationships, leading with integrity, and keeping student success at the forefront, you'll pave the way for a thriving academic community. Welcome to the journey of a lifetime—your leadership can shape the future of higher education.

Written by
Tami Hendriksz, D.O.

Interim Chief Academic Officer, Touro University California (TUC)
Dean & CAO, TUC College of Osteopathic Medicine


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