Colleges and Universities Rely on Search Firms to Find Leaders in Polarizing Times

Colleges and universities face many challenges today. In particular, turnover for leaders is high, resulting in more executive-level searches in the sector than at any time over the past decade. Hunt Scanlon Media takes an inside look at the latest trends in higher education executive recruiting during these unprecedented times.

May 29, 2024 – Academic institutions continue to pump big fees into executive search firms nationwide. Many academic recruiting specialists say business, in fact, has never been better despite some sectors of executive search slowing over the past year. 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. The hunt for interim academic leadership is also picking up pace.

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. And like many sectors, talent shortages have made it difficult to place senior executives in a timely manner. 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 executive search firms to help out.

“Demographic shifts have created a talent shortage that will continue for some years,” said Heather Ring, managing partner of our academic, non-profit, social enterprise & culture practice at Caldwell. “To attract and secure in-demand candidates in this market, higher education institutions need to find ways to be nimble while continuing to use inclusive, transparent processes and search advisory committees to ensure diverse views are considered in decision making. With functional leaders for non-academic roles, we can offer more options when committees are open to individuals from outside higher education, but with experience in complex, multi-stakeholder environments, and an ability to align with the organizational mission.”

When discussing challenges facing university presidents today, Ms. Ring says that there is increasing pressure to take a position on challenging geopolitical issues, and in an increasingly polarized society, it can be difficult to find a middle ground while also remaining true to institutional values. “These roles are increasing in scope, including requiring massive amounts of time spent fundraising, partly to compensate for reduced government support for our public institutions,” she said. “President roles also are increasing in public profile; leaders and their actions are much more exposed in the age of social media. Public figures are easily targeted and pilloried, and, as we have seen, sometimes forced to succumb to extreme public pressure to resign. And we are living in an era in which education is increasingly under attack and labelled as elitist or irrelevant.”

“In response, institutions need to tell their stories authentically, demonstrate their value to society, and engage with the communities in which they operate,” Ms. Ring said. “Maintaining and/or growing enrollment is a challenge for many but not all institutions. Many students have turned away from liberal arts and humanities programs, and institutions have responded by cutting programs. Balancing rising costs and higher student debt are other concerns, and many institutions are grappling with the challenge of recruitment, retention, and support for international students. There are no simple solutions.”

The activity for recruiting senior level college and university executives is at a high level, according to William Funk, founder and president of Funk Associates. “Currently, among others, there are president/chancellor searches in various stages at Harvard, Yale, Penn, UNC Chapel Hill, New Mexico State, UCLA, West Virginia, et al. Stanford, Berkeley, Colorado-Boulder, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Temple have just recently concluded searches or have narrowed their choice to one finalist,” he said. “Similarly, there is significant movement at the provost, VP, and dean levels.”

Related: In Changing Times, Higher Education Sector Seeks New Types of Leaders

“Presidents and chancellors face a myriad of challenges today,” said Willie Funk, managing vice president of the firm. “Always one of the most complex, multi-constituent leadership roles, the presidents we interact with cite campus safety, declining public trust, increased campus unrest, declining enrollment, financial pressures, and no disruptions as some of the issues that keep them awake at night.”

The High Demand for Higher Education Leaders Continues
With a new school year approaching, a number of top colleges and universities have announced they are seeking 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 is another reason why they’re calling in executive recruiters to assist.

Mr. Funk also notes that boards expect turnover rates to continue at their current higher rate. “The decreasing tenure of university presidents naturally boosts the turnover rates at the highest levels,” he says. “And, whenever there is turnover at the top of the administrative structure, there is a ripple effect throughout the organization. Hence, we do anticipate a continuing level of high activity in these demanding jobs.”

Funk Associates has noted that there is a bit of a trend to hire internal candidates or candidates who have ties to the hiring institution, perhaps to a higher degree than previously. “Some schools are forgoing full-fledged searches when hiring internally and others are not using outside search firms in these instances,” said Mr. Funk. “Interest in women and underrepresented candidates continues to be high. Boards are being more active and taking a greater interest in the search process.”

Financial Challenges

“Higher education recruiting is contracting to some degree because of the financial challenges facing many institutions,” said Carrie Coward, president of Summit Search Solutions. “However, that is being offset in many cases by the sheer volume of positions that are open due to retirements. Some of these searches do require a national search effort and so firms remain robust overall. So, there are many obstacles, but primarily financial challenges due to turnover, enrollment challenges,” she noted.

Related: Hunt Scanlon Top 50 Non-Profit & Higher Education Search Firms

“Jobs that require relocation to high cost of living areas or areas where there are housing shortages are especially challenging,” Ms. Coward says. “Colleges and universities that offer any type of remote, hybrid, or flexible position are seeing three times as much interest vs. jobs that firmly require a relocation.”

Ms. Coward also notes that many senior level academics and professionals in academia are opting to leave or to retire if they can manage it financially. Why? She says that “the same reasons that make being a university president challenging also impact the morale of faculty, staff, and administration – finances are tighter than ever, enrollment challenges, political and social unrest. People in academia feel like they are a bit under fire.”

Research has shown that filling president positions for university generally takes longer than typical searches. “Presidential searches are tremendously complex and take more time because there are so many stakeholder groups to involve and to satisfy,” Ms. Coward said. “Some have conflicting interests, so there is a lot to navigate to get to general agreement.” Generally, Ms. Coward explains that traits universities look for include: Grit, positivity, poise, wisdom, creativity, resourcefulness, transparency, political savvy, presence, and credibility.

“The culture, governance, and norms in an academic setting are unique as compared to other industries,” said Ms. Coward. “Academia is more collaborative and inclusive in its hiring practices; thus, you will see search committees in many instances where you would not in another industry. The value proposition of higher education is also broader, as the value of an education goes far beyond the obvious variables, and thus the bottom line is harder to manage to.”

Finding New Sources of Income

“Nearly all higher ed institutions are dependent on tuition as their main source of revenue for the operating budget,” said Meredith Rosenberg, partner and co-founder, NU Advisory Partners. “Amidst declining enrollments of traditional students due to demographics and questions about ROI, some colleges and universities increasingly are recruiting a new type of leader to identify new sources of revenue to supplement tuition and reinforce their brands among constituents,” she added.

“More and more, institutions are creating senior positions with responsibilities for areas including developing programs for new audiences, expanding online or hybrid learning, building immersive off-site learning experiences, forging creative partnerships, and creating fresh approaches to marketing,” Ms. Rosenberg said. “Titles vary institution to institution but the responsibilities are similar. Examples include chief transformation officer, vice provost for innovation, chief partnerships officer, and vice president for new ventures. The ideal candidates for these roles typically know how to work within a higher education environment and must be mission-driven around student outcomes, but aren’t necessarily from academia.”

“They should bring to the institution skills around growth and innovation,” she said. “They can come from the private sector if they have a track record of implementation across similarly complex, large-scale organizations. To be successful in higher ed, they need the patient-yet-tenacious gene. They know how to influence and work with their colleagues and be collaborative, but still be driven to get things done.”

Hard Work

The difficulty of recruiting senior executives for colleges and universities is directly proportional to the challenges faced by the higher education sector, according to Shawn M. Hartman, SVP and COO of Academic Search. “Both public and private institutions contend with increasingly more complex environments due to governmental policies such as student aid and free speech, a lack of general trust in higher education from the public, and technological advancements that may affect both teaching and working environments,” he said. “Higher education leadership is also impacted by internal forces like budget constraints and answering to a wide range of stakeholders. It’s also important to note that the more current leaders and institutions are attacked by the media, the public, or even members of the institution itself, the harder it is to recruit candidates to roles at those institutions.”

Mr. Hartman also explains that at the most senior level of campus, presidents and chancellors have been seeing shorter tenures, which can be attributed to a variety of factors including burnout from the pandemic as well as new challenges stemming from cultural changes on campuses. “As leadership tenure shortens, there will be more opportunities for executive leadership roles within higher education that will need to be filled,” he says. “While it remains a challenge on some campuses, we continue to work toward advancing the cause of equity and inclusion. Part of those efforts starts with the recruitment and selection process of leaders at institutions. We understand that to increase equity and inclusion in higher education leadership, we need to look beyond just recruitment and identify ways in which we can support emerging leaders from all demographics through programs offered in partnership with other higher education organizations.”

To better recruit leaders at colleges and universities, Academic Search believes that it is important to set a strong foundation for the search process where we gain a deep understanding of each institution’s unique culture, mission, and challenges. “This allows our senior consultants at Academic Search to identify and recruit leaders who not only possess the requisite skills and experience but also align closely with the institution’s values and aspirations,” Mr. Hartman said. “As leading institutions becomes more daunting and challenging, finding diverse leaders who have the skill set to lead an institution, while aligning with the mission of the institution may become more challenging. This is why the work we do is so important in identifying and developing the next generation of higher education leaders to fill these critical roles.”

Related: Why Universities Have Stepped Up Efforts to Involve Search Firms

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Executive Editor; Lily Fauver, Senior Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media

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