Adaptable Leaders Needed to Drive Fundraising, DE&I and Technology Initiatives

June 29, 2021 – For over four decades, Academic Search has been a leader in designing and implementing search processes for leaders of colleges and universities across the country. The firm has completed hundreds of executive searches for higher education institutions and related organizations, for roles ranging from presidents to provosts to deans. Dr. L. Jay Lemons became president of Academic Search in 2017, after serving for 25 years as a college president in both public and private higher education. He recently sat down with Hunt Scanlon Media to discuss the current market for recruiting university and college presidents and other leadership.

Jay, there currently seems to be a lot of activity among top universities in the search for new presidents. Can you share the current demand for new leaders at universities?

With delayed retirements due to the pandemic and the additional stresses placed on institutions and their leaders in the last year, many colleges and universities are searching for new presidents at this time. We are not just seeing presidential turnover but also those at the senior administrative level. Research published in March of this year from Higher Education Publications Inc. indicated that since April 2018, following presidents and chancellors, the provost position has been turning over at the highest rate.

Why do you think there is so much turnover currently? Are we seeing a new generation of leaders taking over or are you seeing shorter tenures among college presidents?

The average tenure of presidents and other cabinet officers has been decreasing for some time and has undoubtedly been compounded by COVID-19, which has only made more evident pressing issues commonly faced by campus leadership, from the financial health of the institution to the mental health of students, faculty, and staff. A study by the American Council on Education found the average presidential tenure declined from 8.5 years in 2006 to 6.5 years in 2016. This dip is even larger for certain types of universities, like HBCUs and other minority serving institutions. Furthermore, more than half of today’s presidents expect to step down within five years.

Discuss the importance of chief diversity and inclusion officers at colleges today.

The role of the chief diversity officer at colleges and universities is new to many institutions and increasingly so in the last decade. Whereas in the past there have been individuals whose scope may have encompassed elements of diversity, equity, and inclusion, such as Title IX officers, there are now designated diversity officers who sit at the president’s table and provide enterprise-wide leadership. In some cases the role has been created in response to an institutional crisis associated with racial incidents on campus or to upheaval. However, in any case, it is imperative to the success of the leader serving in the role that they be a part of the senior leadership team and be given the authority and resources to enact substantive institutional change. As campuses continue to face social, cultural, and political challenges, the chief diversity officer is all that more critical in affirming an institution’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, effectively engaging internal and external stakeholders across the diversity spectrum, and ultimately promoting the college’s success.

What are some characteristics of senior executives that can lead universities into the future?

Commonly, some characteristics of senior leadership on campuses are financial acumen, effective communication skills, strategic planning expertise, among others. In today’s environment, however, other characteristics have been emphasized quite significantly, one of the top being change management. Leaders had to quickly pivot this past year to face unprecedented times in which their campuses shut down, classes went online, and enrollment dropped. With this change, leaders were charged with thinking creatively and “outside the box” about how to diversify revenue streams and curricular and co-curricular opportunities. Even as we begin to see ourselves on the other side of the pandemic, higher education leaders should recognize the new ways in which they were engaging students and continue to develop innovative tools and approaches.

Explain the current market for recruiting university and college presidents and other leadership.

The current market for recruiting university and college presidents is bountiful. We are seeing candidate pools that include over 100 applicants. Although the pandemic may have discouraged some individuals from announcing their departures at first, overall we have not seen a decrease in prospective candidate inquiries. This holds true for other leadership positions as well.

Are there any lasting impacts from COVID-19 and how are higher education institutions rebounding?

There certainly will be lasting impacts from COVID-19. Chief among them are the financial woes that institutions have felt and will likely continue to feel for some time as they explore new business models, technology and strategies for reaching students. Prior to the pandemic, institutions were already confronting falling enrollments, declining state funding, and shifting student demographics, all of which were exacerbated in the last year. Many of these losses were stemmed during this past year through the additionally authorized federal support that came to higher education. It is still early to say what other impacts could be forthcoming, but in addition to confronting financial challenges during the pandemic, institutions faced increased mental health concerns of students, faculty, and staff as well as diversity and inclusion issues on campus and at times also in their surrounding communities. Institutions and their leadership have had to adapt quickly, and some have flourished while others may not make it, with consolidations and mergers still likely on the horizon. Overall, the pandemic forced colleges and universities across the country to reexamine how they go about educating the next generation, meeting market needs, and preparing students for success.

What skill-sets are you looking for when recruiting university and college presidents? Has this changed from past years?

The general skillsets needed for a successful presidency remain similar to the past, but the priorities of skills and experience have changed to meet the most pressing current needs of universities and colleges. Because so many campuses are facing financial concerns, one’s ability to think innovatively about ways to increase revenue and fundraise, relationship build, and develop partnerships on behalf of an institution are more paramount than ever.

What is the biggest challenge in recruiting leadership for higher education institutions, and how do you overcome these challenges?

One of the most significant internal challenges to a search is inconsistency in the expectations of the hiring authority and other constituents of the institution for the position. At the onset of the search, we propose meeting with as many internal and external stakeholders as possible to learn about the desired characteristics and experience sought in the next leader as well as the challenges and opportunities the new leader will face, which ultimately guide the recruitment and candidate evaluation process. Having the campus community on the same page about its needs and priorities and being able to share upfront with potential candidates what the job will truly entail, we find, leads to a more successful appointment. In addition, the recruitment and ultimate selection process is only as successful as the final transition and onboarding of the appointee, which must be intentional and well-planned.

How important has diversity, equity and inclusion become in the recruiting process? How has this impacted roles within these institutions and the search process?

Diversity, equity and inclusion has always been important in the recruitment process and is only more so today. Requests
for proposals are consistently asking that we demonstrate our commitment to diversity as an organization as well as in recruiting a diverse pool of candidates. Our best practices have developed over the years to include more intentional efforts to educate the search committee on mitigating bias at every stage of the search process and especially in the evaluation of candidates’ initial application materials as well as subsequent interviews and other interactions with the committee and/or larger campus community. In addition, we have found that more purposeful efforts are being made at the very beginning of the search to build a diverse search committee that reflects more broadly the campus community and demonstrates a commitment by the institution to a more inclusive process.

What do you expect for the rest of 2021? 2022?

We are already seeing an uptick in the number of requests for proposals in comparison to this time last year and we suspect that number will continue to rise and become more in line with what we experienced pre-pandemic. As universities and colleges begin to find their footing out of what was an extraordinary year, we expect that they will continue to face funding challenges, shifting demographics, equity and diversity issues, changing technology and teaching modalities, among other trends. The need to find adaptable, innovative, talented campus leaders is and will remain important for the growth and success of our higher education system moving forward.