Academic Sector Pumping Big Fees Into Search Firms

Elon University is just the latest elite academic institution turning to headhunters to find top leadership as it seeks to replace its popular and long-serving president. Let's go inside the search, and the sector, to see what's driving the trend.

March 2, 2017 – Academic institutions continue to pump big fees into the coffers of executive search firms nationwide. Many academic recruiting specialists say business, in fact, has never been better. Even smaller recruiting outfits have multiple assignments running concurrently, all at the senior levels, and if there’s any slowdown coming it is to be found at the talent identification stage. With so much activity, it seems, talent demand is far outstripping the supply.

In recent months, a number of top schools have announced they are looking for new, high profile leaders to take them into new eras of fundraising, digitalization, sports and, in some cases, globalization. Several universities haven’t changed leaders in years or even decades, and their boards of trustees and search committees are finding an entirely new and highly competitive landscape as they set out. It’s another good reason why they’re calling in headhunters to help.

Elon University is the latest top drawer college to start a search for a new leader, turning to academic leadership recruiting specialist Storbeck / Pimentel & Associates to find its ninth president. Leo M. Lambert, Elon’s popular president for the past 18 years, has stepped down. He will remain in office until his successor is in place. Shelly Weiss Storbeck, the search firm’s co-founder and managing partner, is leading the assignment. It is the first time Storbeck / Pimentel has worked with the university.

Difficult Search Ahead

The school’s board of trustees has been working with Mr. Lambert to ensure a seamless transition. Just like at any major university or large business enterprise, leadership changes can be some of the most hair raising transitions they confront.

Part of the package Mr. Lambert has worked out for himself is to take a one-year sabbatical dedicated to writing, after which he expects to return to Elon as president emeritus and professor and to aid the new president by supporting university advancement and alumni engagement. For such a highly popular college chief executive, this transition is about as smooth as they come. Now, the difficult task lies ahead: finding his successor.

Hunt Scanlon Top 50 Non-Profit & Higher Education Search Firms
Hunt Scanlon presents its first ever roundup of leading recruiters in the non-profit / higher education sectors. Check out these top 50 trailblazers – ranging from the largest recruiting and talent leadership solutions firms to the leading boutique specialists.

Top 50

Ms. Storbeck has acknowledged that finding a next generation leader will not be easy. Anytime you have a highly popular leader in place, transitioning to a new one can be fraught with higher-than-usual expectations. But, she said, therein lies the challenge and the big opportunity.

During Mr. Lambert’s near-two decade presidency, applications for undergraduate admission doubled, and enrollment expanded from 4,000 students to more than 6,700. Full-time faculty increased from under 200 to 425. During that time, student academic credentials soared, average class sizes dropped and student-faculty ratios decreased. During his tenure, Elon added more than 100 buildings to its campus, from academic and support facilities to residential neighborhoods to athletic and recreation centers.

“Leo Lambert has been a dynamic force and an inspirational leader who has propelled Elon to a place of national prominence,” said Kerrii Anderson, chair of the board of Elon’s trustees. “Over the past 18 years, he has dedicated every ounce of his energy to Elon. President Lambert is a man of keen intellect and vision, combining his extensive knowledge of higher education with a compassionate spirit that is evident in the personal relationships he nurtures with thousands of students, parents, alumni, faculty, staff and friends of Elon.”

But Mr. Lambert, ever gracious, has said its time for fresh thinking and new leadership. “I believe this is an ideal time for a transition in Elon’s presidency,” said Mr. Lambert. “We are completing the final objectives of the Elon Commitment strategic plan and making great progress on the leadership phase of the ‘Elon Leads’ comprehensive fundraising campaign, with a public launch scheduled for 2018.”

In recruiting a new president, he said, “we can ensure continuity of leadership for these key initiatives, as well as anticipate the creation and implementation of the university’s next strategic plan.” This will allow Elon to continue to make progress on many fronts as it builds out a “distinguished and distinctive” university, he said.

Replacing a Long-Time Leader

So, what kind of leader can fill such big shoes?

While Storbeck / Pimentel has not even completed its campus visit or developed the position’s job profile, Ms. Storbeck said the institution has incredible momentum and is not showing any signs of slowing that forward movement down. “Likely, they will want someone who will continue to identify new resources to support a very ambitious agenda for the university and continue to build on its national reputation,” she said.

If there’s one thing Ms. Storbeck knows well, it’s the type of leader universities like Elon need as they drive expansive programs ahead. So she’s not the least bit ruffled by what the university’s board of trustees has called her in to do.

“Sure, it can be a little intimidating finding a new leader to replace such a popular, successful president,” she said. “The next president will have to be someone who sees where the opportunities lie and can make a difference with a new set of challenges, which will likely be identifying more resources and continuing to build out the school’s national reputation.” President Lambert, she noted, leaves Elon in great shape and the incoming leader will be fortunate to inherit such a well-run institution.

Founded by the United Church of Christ in 1889, Elon University has 6,008 undergraduate students as well as 731 graduate students and it offers a wide variety of degrees. The school is located in Elon, NC.

Education Search Leaders

Storbeck / Pimentel is one of nation’s leading boutique providers in the leadership solutions space serving educational institutions. It has an established history in recruiting top leadership for higher educational institutions. Reflecting the sector it serves, and mirroring where it’s going, the search firm is minority and female owned and counts more than 25 consultants and support staff located in two main offices in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, with three affiliated offices in Vermont, Virginia and Florida. It has any number of president searches underway concurrently: Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, CT; the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Pace University, both in New York City; and Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, PA.

Ms. Storbeck co-founded the firm in 2007 and she has one of the most widely recognized names in higher education search, having recruited senior leaders for some of America’s most prestigious colleges and universities. Most recently, she has conducted presidential searches for Carnegie Mellon and the University of Wisconsin, and Bates, Denison, Haverford, and Swarthmore colleges. She has, in fact, now conducted more than 500 searches for public and private universities, colleges and schools, and non-profit associations and organizations.

Why Universities Are Turning to Search Firms

Searching for academic leadership is now akin to searching for leaders for any business enterprise. And at a time with many academic leaders are retiring or leaving their posts to pursue other interests, the competition to replace them is intense. Executive search firms, ultimately, provide universities guidance when filling these critical roles.

“Search firms can do two critical things,” said Ms. Storbeck. “We advise on the process and we locate candidates who would never express interest in a search. One third of our searches are presidential searches, and in most cases, the institution has not searched for a president in a significant period of time, and needs considerable help in recruiting and retaining strong prospects.” Here’s some further reading from Hunt Scanlon Media.

Why Universities Have Stepped Up Efforts to Involve Search Firms
Using a search firm to recruit a new president or provost today can cost colleges upwards of $150,000 or more in recruiting fees. So, is it worth bringing in outside recruiters to help? Short answer: yes, especially if they can expand a university’s reach.

Academic Search Roundup

A number of schools have been replacing top leaders over the past year. Here’s a roundup of recent recruiting activity in the education and academic sector, taken from the Hunt Scanlon Media newswire archives:

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief and Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor — Hunt Scanlon Media

Share This Article


Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments