Sorry if the question is weird but I have not seen this terminology before. Who is the president of a university?

In my country, a rector is the leader of a university. A dean might run a faculty, possibly containing several departments. A department head is in charge of a single department.

  • 9
    The answer to this question almost certainly depends on the country and probably even on the individual university. Therefore I do not think we can answer this without further specification.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Jun 30, 2015 at 9:01
  • 5
    In the universities whose administrative structure I'm acquainted with, the president is the highest ranking administrative officer. Often, a large part of the job is to be the public "face" of the university, interacting with governments, alumni, and other outsiders (especially ones who can give money to the university). There is often a slightly lower-ranking official, called a provost or an academic vice-president (or both), who oversees the academic aspects of the university (such as faculty hiring and promotion). Commented Jun 30, 2015 at 16:09
  • And then would just add to Andreas' comment that this can change if the university is for-profit or for whatever reason has chosen to put more or less focus on the business or academic role of the school. Or if it's a small school there might only be one Dean and no Provost.
    – Raydot
    Commented Jun 30, 2015 at 21:55
  • And why don't any universities have prime ministers?
    – Kimball
    Commented Jul 1, 2015 at 0:05
  • @Wrzlprmft I think the question clearly implies and American context, since the word has been shaped by American history. npr.org/2016/02/15/466848438/… Presumably the asker didn't know that. Commented May 13, 2020 at 2:27

5 Answers 5


This is just a different word for the most senior executive of a university. There are many names for this position. In the UK alone they may be called (most commonly) the vice-chancellor, the principal or the president. Broadly speaking, countries where universities are operated by the state have more consistent names for positions in the hierarchy, whereas countries where they are independent organisations have more of a diversity of names.

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    This terminology becomes particularly problematic in the United States, where multi-campus universities might have a single Chancellor and campus-specific Presidents, or the opposite. Wikipedia has a decent discussion of the issues.
    – Thomas
    Commented Jun 30, 2015 at 13:58
  • If the most senior is the vice-chancellor, who’s the chancellor?
    – user354948
    Commented Nov 26, 2022 at 10:33
  • @user354948 A ceremonial figurehead, with no executive authority/
    – MJeffryes
    Commented Nov 26, 2022 at 13:17

The term "president" may not be applicable to every country, and can differ in one County by different federal laws or historic use. Another point is that translations are difficult.

In (former) East Germany you usually have two main roles in the leadership of universities:

  • (der) Kanzler m. / (die) Kanzlerin f.: usually the head of the management staff, has the householder's rights and is responsible for the financial decisions. (in engl: chancellor)
  • (der) Rektor m. / (die) Rektorin f.: usually has a representative function, traveling around, speaks in public about the institution and in some cases is also responsible for the academic profile of an university. It's mostly translated to English as the dean, but vice versa the english word dean often is also translated to Dekan (which is not the same as Rektor)
  • (der) Dekan m. / (die) Dekanin f.: usually the leader of a "faculty" (department) or institute. With mixed responsibilities compared to the roles described before on overall university level.

Moreover, as Wrzlprmft pointed out, in the (German) western federal states, the Kanzler is often called the Präsident of an university. Also the meaning of the other terms can differ between federal states.

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    To complete this, it might be worthwhile to add that a "faculty" as used here refers to a part of the university dealing with a very general common area of subjects, such as "mathematics", "languages", or "biology". (Otherwise, the meaning might be unclear, as sometimes these units of organization are called "school", "department", or even something else.) Commented Jun 30, 2015 at 16:43
  • In Italy the Decano is always the eldest member of the university (or of a faculty or department). Is it the same also in Germany? Commented Jun 30, 2015 at 18:06
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    @MassimoOrtolano: Not necessarily. In particular, some universities/faculties cyclically forward the office of being the "Dekan" once every few years, so as to evenly distribute the additional workload this means among all of the non-junior professors. Commented Jul 1, 2015 at 9:23

FWIW, in the U.S., "president" is typically the highest executive officer of a single campus. Some universities, particularly in the big state systems, have executive officers over the whole system, who can be called a variety of things, often "chancellor." In state schools, the president will usually be overseen by a board of private officials, often called a "board of regents" or something like that; in private schools there's something similar, often equivalent to the board of directors of a nonprofit corporation (at Harvard, for example, they're called the "board of overseers").


In the United States, the title and rank of President and Chancellor varies by system and state. Some universities have Chancellors and other have Presidents and the ranking of the two positions can be switched.

For example, the University of Wisconsin System has multiple independent campuses that are their own, independent Universities (e.g., have their own accreditation, administration, etc.). UW-Madison has a chancellor as do other UW schools (e.g., UW-La Crosse has a chancellor). The UW System shares a Board of Regents who oversee the System and the UW System's President.

As a counter example, the Texas Tech System shares a Board of Regents and a Chancellor. The individual universities in the system such as Texas Tech University or Angelo State University have their own presidents.


The president of an American university is the chief fund-raiser. The president is responsible for seeking major donations from individuals, corporations, and foundations, and for lobbying governments for appropriations. The president also creates strategic partnerships with other organizations, which often include in-kind donations.

The president is also the chief executive, but at wealthier institutions this is a secondary role.

To quote Matt Read:

It’s a standing joke that at private four-year schools, the president reports to the development office. It isn’t literally true, but in some places, it’s close.

The development office is the fundraising office.

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